Dolphin Delights in the Florida Keys

Close encounters with these sociable mammals are educational and fun.


My 6-year-old, Lana, has just finished playing with the dolphins at Hawks Cay resort in the Florida Keys, and I ask her which part she liked best. “When I fed the dolphins … and when the dolphins danced. And I like when the dolphins clapped. The dolphin was going crazy clapping and dancing.” Lana could probably go on and on as to what she liked best. What’s not to like? Throughout the Florida Keys, there are numerous venues where humans can interact with dolphins.

Many of these places are also involved in research, and thus are keenly aware of the environmental hazards facing these species and their habitat. “We all hold the same general philosophy,” says Sylvia Rickett of Dolphin Connection at Hawks Cay. “We can only help conservation by educating and spreading the word.”

Playing & Learning with Dolphins

And what better way to spread the word than by human interaction in natural settings? “Research shows that when people meet dolphins, they emote to them and are more likely to remember what they learned,” adds Rickett, who has been working with dolphins for more than 20 years. That experience, she hopes, will make people more cognizant of how to keep the mammals and their environment safe.

What did my daughter and I learn? We learned that dolphins are an “indicator species,” and if they are healthy, it’s good news for the surrounding marine life. That’s one of the reasons the dolphins at Hawks Cay are continually tested for heartiness. We learned that dolphins are very social, playing and fighting and scratching each other in the process (just like kids). Fortunately, their skin rejuvenates every couple of hours, and it’s about 10 times as thick as ours.

We also learned that when sonar hits a dolphin’s jaw it vibrates to the inner ear and then their brain, giving the dolphin a 3-D mental map of the size, direction and speed of an object—my rental car’s GPS has nothing on these dolphins. And we learned that dolphins can be an awful lot of fun to interact with: My daughter played with them dockside, while I swam alongside them in a lagoon, learning how to properly give a dolphin a hug and then some.

The Dolphin Connection at Hawks Cay, 61 Hawks Cay Blvd., Duck Key, Fla.; tel. 888-814-9154; Fees: $135 for resort guests, $150 for non-resort guests. Height minimum: 4-feet, 6-inches.

Dolphin Marine Research Center

Not yet having our fill of dolphins, my daughter and I also visited the Dolphin Marine Research Center near Hawks Cay in Marathon. The nonprofit center, home to 19 dolphins, is an incredible wealth of learning and fun. The center hosts educational sessions every half hour that focus on dolphin behavior and cognitive abilities. Session titles include Fun Facts, Medical Training, and All About Babies. There’s also a program for special needs visitors, called Dolphin Pathways.

In Fun Facts, dolphins showed us how they swim compared to how a shark swims (the dolphins demonstrate both, and it’s quite funny). In All About Babies, I was mesmerized to learn that dolphins often have nannies—female dolphins that step in for day care to help stressed-out moms, guiding newborns. The nannies even help act as midwives on occasion.

My daughter, meanwhile, was awed watching new mothers in the “maternity lagoon” teaching their young ones to swim properly. It’s all fascinating and enlightening, and it’s an experience that will enrich children of all ages. And like Hawks Cay, the Dolphin Research Center offers interactive experiences—the mammals enjoying grasping objects like paintbrushes between their teeth, and I watched as a lady had a T-shirt “painted” by a dolphin. There also are weeklong camps/labs offered for children 10 and up.

So if you’re looking for a vacation in the sun but with some unique learning experiences for your family, try a dolphin experience in any number of the wonderful, conservation-oriented settings in the Florida Keys. Your whole family may have a better appreciation for these beautiful ocean mammals that are like us in so many ways. You’ll find the dolphins are probably just as intrigued by you, as you by them.

Dolphin Research Center, 58901 Overseas Highway (MM 59), Grassy Key, Fla.; tel. 305-289-0002; Hours: 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m. daily. Admission: adults, $19.50; senior 55+, $16.50; children 4-12,  $13.50; under 3, free. Discount admission tickets available here.

Destinations: Florida, Key West

Themes: Beach Vacations, Ecotourism, Family Travel

Activities: Sightseeing

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