Checking in and Safety Rules

WHAT TIME SHOULD I ARRIVE BEFORE MY SWIM?

It is best to aim to arrive 15 minutes prior to your swim time to allow for changing and check-in procedures. When you calculate drive time, keep in mind possible unexpected traffic and finding the facility.

ARE TOWELS PROVIDED? WHAT DO WE NEED TO BRING?

Please bring your towel and apply a reef-safe sunscreen (such as Stream 2 Sea – sold here at DPMMR), at least 15 minutes prior to your swim. However, we do sell towels, should you forget to bring one.

CAN WE BOOK A SWIM IF WE DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH?

Yes. DPMMR has several programs that will accommodate our international guests. However, if all guests that are participating do not speak English, we do require that someone in the party, even an observer, can translate what the trainer is saying to the guest. For safety reasons, it is extremely important that the in-water participant can understand and follow instructions from the trainer.

ARE UNDERWATER CAMERAS ALLOWED IN THE WATER DURING MY SWIM?

For the Snorkel with the Dolphins program, guests are allowed to use underwater cameras, but not for the Interactive and Splash and Wade Programs.  During each of these hands-on experiences, the ability to utilize a camera is too difficult, as your hands will be occupied with dolphins!  However, many cameras, like GoPros, have chest, wrist (snorkel program only), and head straps that you are allowed to wear during your program.  Our photo department will be taking photos of each participant that pre-booked their photos, and you are more than welcome to visit the Photo Department after your interaction to view these photos.  Photos may also be taken of participants who did not sign up for the photo shoot and if so, will be available for purchase after the swim.

WHY AREN’T OBSERVERS ALLOWED DOWN ON THE DOCK TO TAKE PICTURES?

All of the swimmers participating in our interactive programs are required to sign a release form before entering the water.  Our insurance considers anyone who has not signed a release form a liability and therefore they are unable to step on the platform.  Our facility does its best to provide professional photographers to take pictures of every program participant.  If a photographer has been assigned to your friends’ or family’s program, he or she will be more than happy to let you view the photos in the Photo Department after the session.

WHY DO I HAVE TO WEAR THIS VEST? I AM A GREAT SWIMMER!

Our insurance policy requires that our swimmers wear vests for all programs, and is meant to increase overall safety.  The Interactive swim requires guests be in deep water, thus, the vest allows you float comfortably in the water, enabling you to focus on the dolphins.  This will be helpful when doing behaviors with the dolphins (body rubs, kisses, handshakes), which require you to float in a standing position.

Dolphin Interactions

WHERE WILL THE DOLPHIN INTERACTION TAKE PLACE? ARE WE GOING OUT ON A BOAT?

All interaction programs at DPMMR take place at 31 Corrine Place, Key Largo, FL, in our natural, ocean water lagoons. Our facility resides on a salt-water canal that is open at both ends to the Atlantic Ocean. We have two tidal exchanges each day and Mother Nature acts as our natural filtration system. We do not need any chlorine, pumps, or machines for our water, as it is natural ocean water.

There is no need for a boat and once you have arrived at the facility, your encounter is just moments away!

HOW LONG WILL WE BE IN THE WATER?

The Interactive and Splash and Wade programs are not based on time, but rather on a certain number of behaviors.  This is done to ensure that everyone has a similar experience, regardless of speed of the animals.  The dolphins sometimes do not interact continuously with guests due to distractions in the canal and in the lagoon (E.g., their own calves, wild dolphins or manatees).  Occasionally, dolphins like to take breaks! If the dolphins are distracted, guests may be in the water longer because the total number of behaviors will take longer for the dolphins to complete. 

The length of the session is also dependent on the number swimmers, as well as outside influencing factors. The Snorkel with the Dolphins Program is one of our only timed programs, with a briefing of 20-30 minutes and the in-water portion lasts twenty minutes.  The Connect to Protect Program has a 15 minute educational briefing and the in-water program lasts 15 minutes. All other programs are based on a specific number of behaviors that the trainer asks the dolphins to do. In order to maximize your and the dolphins’ experience, we do not time those programs, but the educational briefing lasts around 30 minutes.

I HAVE A 5 YEAR OLD WHO HAS BEEN DYING TO TOUCH A DOLPHIN, CAN THE TRAINER JUST HAVE HIM COME DOWN AND TOUCH THEM AT THE END OF THE SESSION?

Unfortunately, the trainers are unable to invite guests down onto the dock unless the individual has been signed a release and has signed up for an interactive program.  If a young child is interested in touching one of our dolphins we suggest our waist-deep, shallow water program, which involves hands on interactive behaviors with the dolphins like body rubs, handshakes, or kisses.  The Splash and Wade Program is offered to participants as young as 3 years old.  We also offer a Rendezvous with the Dolphin program for guests as young as 6 months old. All of these programs are offered daily.

CAN PREGNANT WOMEN SWIM WITH THE DOLPHINS?

Our insurance policy does not allow pregnant women to enter the water with the dolphins. However, the rule has nothing to do with the dolphins and more about walking on our floating dock system. In fact, dolphins’ echolocation gives them the ability to detect if a woman is pregnant in the water, and the ability to see the baby and heartbeat.  Therefore, (anecdotal from staff) we have seen the animals become quite curious, attentive, and gentle towards these individuals during swims, but we cannot allow pregnant guests into the water. We do offer a Rendezvous with the Dolphins or a Dolphin Originals program for any pregnant guest!

IS IT OK TO SWIM IF I HAVE MY PERIOD?

Yes. Absolutely. Dolphins do not have a sense of smell, nor are they attracted to blood in the water like sharks.

WHAT ELSE LIVES IN THE DOLPHIN LAGOON? ARE THERE ANY SHARKS?

No! Since we are on a natural ocean water canal, you will see algae, fish, shrimp, crabs, and lobster in the dolphin lagoon. This naturally occurring flora and fauna provide significant enrichment for our dolphins, who like to feast on these critters during their down time. Rest assured that nothing else can come into the lagoon, as the fence holes are too small to allow it. However, we do see the occasional wild dolphin or manatee in the canal and our dolphins love to check them out!

ARE DOLPHINS AGGRESSIVE?

All animals can be aggressive, especially animals in the wild who are scared or feel threatened by a human. However, the dolphins at DPMMR have been trained to learn that interacting with people is enriching and fun. The dolphins associate our guests with playtime and fun, thus there is nothing to worry about! The dolphins rely on their trainers for instruction, so they know when the guests will be touching and interacting with them and how. Thus, it is always important for guests to listen carefully to their trainer and follow directions.

IS IT NORMAL TO BE NERVOUS AT FIRST?

Yes! It is perfectly normal to be a little hesitant or anxious before your first dolphin swim, as guests typically do not swim with dolphins on a regular basis! Most people are nervous for the first 5 minutes until they get used to the dolphins. Then, they never want to leave the water!

DO THE DOLPHINS ENJOY INTERACTING WITH PEOPLE?

We believe so! The interactive sessions where our marine mammal family interact with guests is considered play time for the dolphins! All of the interaction is always up to the dolphins, so they are making a conscious choice to interact with the guest. If they don’t want to interact, they do not have to, they get fed their full diet in a day regardless of their interactions.

In fact, trainers at DPMMR notice the dolphins becoming more vocal and peeking up at guests just before the sessions, which seems to suggest they are looking forward to these sessions!

The dolphins at DPMMR are extremely stimulated throughout the day. A typical day consists of three to four sessions where the general public is invited to interact and observe the dolphins, as well as several other shorter sessions for trainers to concentrate on husbandry and new training.  As trainers, it is our responsibility to ensure the animals are entertained throughout the day with a variety of different sessions (e.g. husbandry, training, relationship, research, enrichment).  In addition to interactions and training, the natural lagoon is filled with a variety of species of fish, and even wild dolphins and manatees will approach the fence, which is enriching for our population.

HOW CAN DOLPHINS DISTINGUISH ONE TRAINER’S WHISTLE FROM ANOTHER?

Dolphins have an excellent sense of directional hearing.  All of the trainers use the same type of whistle, so rather than distinguishing the pitch or tone, they judge the direction the sound comes from.  They do, however, occasionally misjudge the direction.  It is important to remember that even dolphins make mistakes.

Managed Care and Dolphin Conservation

IS IT OK TO SWIM WITH DOLPHINS IN THE WILD?

NO!!! It is, in fact, ILLEGAL to swim with, interact, touch, feed, harass, or chase wild marine mammals. Interacting with wild dolphins and whales in any fashion is considered harassment and therefore is illegal under the MMPA (Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972).  These rules and regulations are in place to prevent their natural behaviors from being disrupted. Swimming with wild dolphins can land a fine of up to $25,000 and up to 1 year in jail.

HOW CAN I LEGALLY VIEW MARINE MAMMALS IN THE WILD?

Please visit this link for safe viewing tips and more detailed information.
https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/insight/frequent-questions-feeding-or-harassing-marine-mammals-wild

WHAT ARE SOME COMMON THREATS TO MARINE MAMMALS?

Unfortunately, one of the characteristics marine mammals share is that most are, or have been, exploited by humans.  Whales, sea otters, sea cows, and seals have been historically overexploited, which has resulted in the extinction of some species (e.g. Stellar sea cow, Caribbean monk seal, and the Atlantic gray whale) and the endangered status of many.  Though there are laws that protect marine mammals, not all countries abide by these laws.  So, the direct harvesting of whales, seals, walruses, dugongs, and dolphins still occurs today in various places throughout the world.

Another threat to marine mammals is entanglement in fishing gear and nets.  Many marine mammal species are accidentally caught in nets used by fishermen.  This is called “bycatch”, which is the non-target portion of the catch.  Bycatch includes not only marine mammals, but also other species of fish, invertebrates, reptiles, and even birds and is a very wasteful practice.  Passive, or discarded, gear and trash cans also cause a significant amount of marine mammal mortality each year.  Lost and discarded nets wreak havoc on marine organisms as they drift for many miles and sometimes many years.  When a marine mammal gets entangled in a net, they often lose the ability to swim to the surface to breathe and then drown.

Marine pollution, specifically single use plastics, cause injury or death to many marine species every day. Also, toxins, can cause serious health issues in marine mammals.  Chemicals such as PCBs, organochlorides, pesticides, and heavy metals are related to reduced immune function (i.e. the ability to ward off infections and disease), an increase in the mortality of newborns (also called “neonates”), sterility, fewer births, birth defects, skeletal abnormalities, various types of cancer, and neurological dysfunction.  

Oil spills suffocate marine environments and cause serious issues for many marine organisms.  Marine birds and marine mammals tend to suffer heavily from exposure to oil, because they lose their ability to float and insulate themselves when their feathers/fur become soaked with oil.  The long-term effects on marine mammals from oil spills are associated with the ingestion of the oil and the inhalation of hydrocarbon vapors.  The Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, resulted in the death of approximately 250,000 seabirds, sea lions, 2800 sea otters, 300 harbour seals, 22 killer whales, and billions of fish.  The recent BP oil spill is said to be the equivalent of 13 Exxon Valdez spills as of July 2010.  

Other threats to marine mammals include sound pollution (interferes with communication, breeding, diving, migrating, and feeding), collision with vessels (particularly manatees but also occurs between dolphins and whales and large ships), river regulation devices (causes drowning of manatees and river dolphins), habitat destruction, and climate change (e.g. global warming and the loss of polar bear habitat and prey).

HOW DOES DPMMR SERVE TO HELP DOLPHINS IN THE WILD?

Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder is privileged to care for a diverse population of bottlenose dolphins that have inspired and educated thousands of guests and have contributed to our understanding of this species. The goal of our organization is to connect each person that walks through our doors with our unique and inspiring marine mammal family. As the world’s oceans face temperature shifts, overfishing, pollution, and acidification, now more than ever we need to educate and motivate individuals to save our natural resources. One person that makes a change in their daily lives can result in thousands of pieces of plastic never reaching the ocean, and by encouraging each visitor to spread the word, the positive changes are multiplied. When we provide the opportunity for our guests to interact in a meaningful way with our dolphins, we hope these changes and the education they receive by our animal care professionals will resonate and last for the rest of their lives.

In addition to the direct positive impact DPMMR’s response and rescue team has on stranded whales and dolphins, DPMMR also indirectly affects marine mammals in the wild via the research that we do on a daily basis. DPMMR is proud to have over 60 ongoing research projects exploring dolphin behavior, cognition, acoustics, and welfare. With dozens of publications, book chapters, and graduate student theses, our prolific research department has disseminated groundbreaking research to the scientific community to better conserve and protect our dolphins’ wild counterparts. Additionally, the knowledge we have gained caring for our dolphins has resulted in a deeper understanding of behavior and medicine that we are able to apply during stranding scenarios with distressed cetaceans. Sharing this knowledge with our collaborators allows for further advancement in the area of rehabilitation and welfare, and it is a responsibility DPMMR cherishes. Our immersive internships provide opportunities for career advancement in the areas of animal care and research, and our interns complete the programs with a greater appreciation for the marine environment and leave with the tools to continue to educate others about the complex issues facing the marine environment.

The most important part of our job is connecting people to these animals. These meaningful connections will profoundly alter the lives of those who experience them, and our staff is a living testament to the power of connecting to protect. It is our hope that combining our passion for education and research and utilizing experiential learning activities with our animals will contribute to positive changes in the lives of our visitors. #ConnectToProtect at DPMMR, and help us in our mission to create a better world.

Dolphin Facts, Questions and Misconceptions

HOW INTELLIGENT IS A DOLPHIN? ARE THEY AS SMART AS MY DOG?

Dogs and dolphins are typically trained in a similar way, with the use of operant conditioning.  To study dolphin cognition, training is often employed for some tasks, but not always necessary, as certain cooperation and feeding strategies (no training) suggest higher cognitive abilities.  Intelligence is the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills, and is very difficult to measure from culture to culture with humans; thus, intelligence is even more challenging to attempt to measure it from species to species.  The study of dolphin cognition gained popularity in the early 1970s when researchers derived tasks to showcase different cognitive abilities (e.g. memory (episodic, semantic), problem-solving, novel or creative ability, tool usage).  It has proven to be most challenging to devise a meaningful scale of intelligence for animals.  To date, research studies have supported the ideology that dolphins have the ability to understand grammar, reason and answer anomalous questions, are self-aware, and exhibit problem-solving skills.  Tool-use has also been observed in several wild dolphin populations (dolphins have been seen in Australia carrying sponges on their rostrums to use in foraging).

Although not always supported, intelligence can also be measured primarily through comparative brain anatomy and psychology.  A more complex measurement of this is the encephalization quotient (EQ), which examines the allometric effects of differing physiques and forms, as well as species.

DO DOLPHINS HEAL PEOPLE?

Dolphins DO NOT heal people, but they have an amazing ability to act as motivators.  Dolphin Assisted Therapy and other forms of Animal Assisted Therapy have gained popularity over the years for various reasons.  However, these are all different forms of recreational therapy.  For certain children and adults, finding the proper motivator for advancement (socially, medically, emotionally) is key in their therapeutic care.  Often times, dolphins are an individual’s motivator, thus producing advancements in certain areas of concentration.  However, these results have also been seen with hippo-therapy (horses) and dogs.

I’VE HEARD THAT DOLPHINS RESCUE DROWNING VICTIMS AT SEA. IS THAT TRUE?

Although there have been many stories and myths told, there is limited valid documented evidence of a wild marine mammal saving a human’s life.  There was recently video footage released of dolphins in Australia herding a group of swimmers together when there were sharks in the area.  Although dolphins have been documented participating in altruistic behavior towards other animals, there is not sufficient evidence documented that it happens with humans.  One should be cautious in believing these stories at face value.

IS IT TRUE WHEN THERE ARE DOLPHINS IN THE WATER, THERE ARE NO SHARKS?

This is not necessarily true as dolphins and sharks are often found living harmoniously in the same waters.  It is possible for sharks to be predators of dolphins and vice versa, but this is rare behavior.  However, mother-calf dyads will typically avoid areas where sharks frequent in order to keep younger pod members safe.

WHAT ARE THE NATURAL PREDATORS OF DOLPHINS?

Natural predators of dolphins include several species of sharks and sometimes killer whales.  These natural predators have very little impact on dolphin populations compared to the harmful effects humans have on marine mammals. However, humans are the number one threat towards dolphins.  Bad fishing practices, marine debris, noise pollution, and toxic dumping are examples of man-made threats to dolphins.  Research suggests that humans contribute to approximately 200,000 dolphin deaths yearly.

DPMMR Facility Information

WHAT DOES DPMMR DO AS A NOT FOR PROFIT ORGANIZATION?

As a 501(c).3, DPMMR is committed to the conservation and protection of marine mammals, worldwide, through our active involvement in conservation, research, extensive education, and outreach programs. DPMMR leads and operates the only whale and dolphin stranding organization covering 10,000 square miles of marine habitat in the Florida Keys. DPMMR promotes a greater understanding of marine ecosystem science, marine mammal conservation, and environmental stewardship via powerful daily interactions with the general public. By booking a swim at DPMMR, you are doing your part to not only help wild and stranded whales and dolphins, but to promote ocean conservation! We thank you for your support!

WHERE DID THESE DOLPHINS COME FROM? WERE THEY RESCUED?

All but two of our current dolphins were born right here in the facility. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, there are certain provisions that allow wild marine mammals to be taken from the wild. These provisions require extensive permits for research, educational, and public display purposes, or even enhancing survival of a marine mammal species (NMFS). Our original group of dolphins was collected from the Sarasota Bay area in the late 1970s and early 1980s to begin a Natural Swim program at Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder. Over the years, Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder has expanded due to many successful births, and these dolphins make up our current population.

In the past, Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder housed a rescue dolphin named Castaway.  She had stranded herself in Castaway Cove, off of Jensen Beach, on the east coast of Florida.  Castaway was rehabilitated by the Marine Mammal Conservancy and was moved to Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder in 2007.

DO THE DOLPHINS EAT THE FISH IN THE LAGOON?

Absolutely!  The behavior has been documented with all of the animals at Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder: wild caught population and captive born individuals.  The dolphins receive most of their diet from the trainers in the form of previously frozen and thawed fish, but supplement their diet with fish from the lagoon.  The trainers have seen the dolphins chasing after mangrove snappers, minnows, lobsters, and even shrimp.

WHY DO YOU HYDRATE THE DOLPHINS?

Research supports the positive effects of proper hydration in mammals as beneficial to overall health.  Dolphins in the wild receive fresh water solely from the fish that encompass their diet.  At Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder the trainers proactively supplement the animals’ diets with extra hydration via gelatin and through a trained behavior called a hydration.  The trainers strive to assist the animals through training to be active participants in their own husbandry care; thus, we train our dolphins to hydrate via the tube daily (as determined by the veterinary staff).  Additionally, due to the quantities of fish our population eats, we rely on frozen fish.  During the process of freezing and thawing the fish, it loses properties including water and other vitamins such as Thiamine.  Overall, the hydration procedure is a supplemental and preventative procedure to benefit the animals’ overall health.

WHAT DO YOU DO WITH THE DOLPHINS IF A HURRICANE IS COMING?

The Curator and managerial staff have comprised a multi-level safety plan that outlines multiple proactive strategies we would execute should the need arise.  These plans take into account the direction, strength, and potential duration of the storm.  Basic preparation is needed regardless if a tropical storm or hurricane is approaching to ensure animal safety.  High winds and water levels are of major concern, so the removal of all objects around the lagoon is of the utmost importance, as these objects have the ability to become projectiles in severe weather.  

As animal care professionals, it is our duty to ensure the animals are properly fed prior, during, and post storm, thus many individuals will be at the facility during these times.  Each plan is a proactive approach to the safety and well being of our population, and prevents us from being reactive during these times.
DPMMR did incur much damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017 and are still feeling the effects of the storm today. We rely on the generosity of our guests and donors to help us pull through and recover. If you would like to make a tax deductible donation, please visit https://www.dpmmr.org/ways-get-donate and click on the donate button! We thank you for your support!

Education

HOW CAN I BECOME A DOLPHIN TRAINER?

The process to work with marine mammals in this industry is complex.  A bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or university is now the norm when pursuing a career in marine mammal training.  Majors including but not limited to psychology, biology, marine biology and zoology are all acceptable for most facilities.  Other institutions that hold merit within the field include Moorpark College, which offers a two-year degree in exotic animal training.  

Completing internships at marine mammal facilities to gain hands on experience is an important part of acquiring any job.  ANY animal experience (dog training, zoos, aquaria) you can attain while pursuing this job is beneficial, including volunteering.  Also, educating yourself with the most up to date information about marine mammals (books, journal articles, training forums) will assist in making you a more qualified applicant.

Obtaining SCUBA certification is ideal, and having excellent swimming skills is mandatory.  Lastly, becoming a member of the International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association (IMATA) will allow you to read forums, related training articles, and have access to job and internship postings.  The individuals that put extra effort into pursuing the career are the ones that acquire the position.

Volunteer Application Process

Will I be contacted about the progress of my application?

Volunteers will be contacted throughout the application process by the volunteer coordinators. Once a complete application is received, the volunteer coordinators will contact you via email within 2-4 weeks with more information.

Can anyone apply for to be a volunteer?

DPMMR accepts applicants from a wide range of backgrounds. All applicants must be at-least 18 years old at the time of application. All volunteers are required to pass a background check before beginning their service.

If I am selected as an volunteer, what happens next?

After being accepted to the volunteer program, volunteers will be contacted with more information regarding orientation, training, and scheduling.

What does the application fee cover?

The application fee helps defray the cost of training materials, application processing, and one t-shirt per volunteer.

Volunteer Program Details

What benefits will I receive as a volunteer?

Volunteers will receive a 20% discount in the gift shop as well as the opportunity to earn discounted encounters for friends/family.

Will I be paid?

Volunteers do not receive monetary compensation for their position as a volunteer.

Does DPMMR provide housing or transportation?

DPMMR is unable to provide housing or transportation for volunteers.

Does Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder accept government or school appointed community service volunteers?

Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder considers appointed community service volunteers on a case-by-case basis as each volunteer’s situation is unique. If you are interested in this opportunity, please contact the volunteer coordinator at the time of application explaining your goals/reason for volunteering. However, DPMMR does not guarantee these volunteer opportunities will be available.

What is a typical day for a volunteer like?

Volunteers participate in a wide range of jobs and shifts. Please see the detailed descriptions of each focus area for more information regarding the specific duties of a volunteer.

Will volunteering lead to a job?

Volunteers are not guaranteed a job for participating in the program. All paid positions are handled in a separate department. Although volunteering at the facility is a good way to get your foot in the door, volunteers should not expect their experience to end in a job with DPMMR.

What is the dress code?

Volunteers will have different dress codes based on which focus area they are placed in. All volunteers are required to wear a DPMMR volunteer shirt while on site. Additionally, all volunteers must maintain a professional appearance and good personal hygiene while volunteering. More details regarding proper attire will be addressed in the volunteer’s orientation.

How can I obtain extra volunteer shirts?

Accepted volunteers have the opportunity to purchase extra volunteer shirts from the gift shop at any time while remaining an active volunteer.

Will I get to interact with animals at the facility?

Interacting with the animals is a privilege and volunteers may earn the right to interact with the animals. However, interaction with our population is limited and not guaranteed. Volunteers should not expect to have any direct contact or interaction with the animals.

Will I get to respond to stranded or injured marine mammals?

Volunteers in with the Marine Mammal Response Team will have the opportunity to participate in marine mammal strandings, entanglements, and other emergencies. Volunteers in this focus area will obtain specialized training from a volunteer coordinator.

Who do I contact if I have other questions?

If you have other questions regarding the Volunteer Program, please contact the volunteer coordinators by emailing [email protected].