Dolphin Research Center

By Friday, July 03, 2015

Seven year old Emma was obsessed with dolphins. I had a horse phase and a dog phase but dolphins were my all-time favourite. I had dolphin soft toys, posters, and figurines. I memorised dolphin facts and figures (Did you know dolphins are mammals and not fish? Did you know dolphins can swim up to 20 mph? Did you know dolphins live in groups called pods?) and wrote them all in my little dolphin notebook. I even wanted to become a marine biologist at one point.

As much as I'm still fond of dolphins and wanted very much to see them on this trip, I recently watched the controversial documentary Blackfish, after a birthday whale watching trip, and knew I wanted to go nowhere near Sea World's Discovery Cove. I'm glad to see I'm not alone in feeling this as the company's profits have plummeted by 84%.

It was a huge relief to me when I found we would be passing the Dolphin Research Center on the way to Key West. I could fulfil my childhood dream as well as ensure I was supporting an ethical organisation due to the scientific demands for animal welfare. 

While the centre survives mainly on dolphin encounters, I managed to get my hands on some information concerning their actual research. The centre has quite the spread, with studies on object permanence, blindfolded imitation, numerosity, social development in calves and more. Suffice to say I was in my element.

We attended a talk at the mother-calf area, where we got to coo over two babies. It was really interesting and sort of bemusing to see the mothers vie for our attention as well, almost as if they were saying "Hello? We're here too, you know?!"

They splashed around, waved, and even did a few jumps for us. Sometimes their calves would join in as well. Truly very playful and friendly animals.

What I loved about the centre was that all of the animals get a choice whether they want to participate in talks. If one of the mums has decided she wants to focus more on her calf than on a marine biologist, that's absolutely fine. If she decides she wants to stay in the back pen, away from visitors, she would never be forced to the front to be shown off. The staff place a lot of faith in their animals to know themselves which is really refreshing to see. The centre is really living up to their mission statement of "promoting peaceful coexistence, cooperation and communication between dolphins and humans".

Here comes the corny part. In between my frantic photographing, I crouched down to get a better look into a pen through the fencing that stopped anyone falling in. A dolphin immediately stopped by the corner I was at and looked at me.

Connecting, if only for a minute, with another highly intelligent species is a challenge to describe. It's the feeling of anticipation, like you're on the verge of a scientific discovery and are nearing the eureka moment. You don't share a language but there's still an awareness between the two of you that you want to communicate, so you keep looking at each other and wishing you could and looking and longing and then just like that, it's over. 

Losing that feeling was jarring but as a consequence, I am, of course, very excited for future research! We already know that dolphins are self-aware, use tools and have individual signature whistles that act as names. It's only a matter of time before we decode the vocalisations.

Now, I hadn't planned on getting wet on this trip but as I was sitting on a bench in the shade of a tree, I got water on my arm. Looking back on it I wish someone had been filming me because I'm sure my face was the very picture of confusion. My mind immediately decided that the tree's leaves must have collected water from the last storm and suddenly gave way... but it was far too hot for that.

Then my brother made me look up and I saw this.

A gecko peed on me. I have a wonderful memory from this day that I will treasure forever but whenever I think of it or mention it, the memory that will always follow will be of a Madagascar day gecko peeing on me.

Look at that smug face. He knows what he did!

Florida 2015
Universal Studios OrlandoKey Biscayne
Cocoa Beach and VillageOrchids and Key Largo
Kennedy Space CenterDolphin Research Center
Miami BeachKey West
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