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October 10, 2011

"Dream Date"

by Heather

Dolphin_dream_date--amazing_leap_by_Santini Two years ago I attended Founder's Day with my friend, author Mary Stella, who’s also head of marketing and media for Dolphin Research Center, down on Grassy Key, in the Marathon, the Florida Keys. I love the place. I love the affection they have for their animals, I love the research they do--and I love the way they do their research. . . and so, I wound up bidding on (and winning) the "Dream Date," not really sure what a "dream date" might be.

Well, life has a tendency to intrude on . . . life. The DRC pinned me down to a date, and so I put aside work and headed off to the Keys with friend (and author) Kathy Pickering. 

I am not a Pisces for nothing--I dive, I swim, I love boats, reefs, sea creatures, and, most of all, sea mammals. I love the feeling I get when we start on the eighteen mile "stretch" that crosses Lake Surprise (seriously, I don't know why they were surprised there was lake) and the signs that warn you of Gator Crossings and the feel of breeze and the beauty of the water, just as you drive down. I love reaching Key Largo, which is built up, has lots of boating and diving opportunities and is the opiate of choice for many Floridians--you can be there from central Miami-Dade in an hour. I love the more lonely middle Keys, and the total insanity and history of Key West.

I may never love anything as much as the Dolphin Research Center.

I'd never imagined how wonderful our day would be. On a standard dolphin swim, you learn about Dolphin dream date--Jane, me, Kathy, Mandy and Santini dolphins and you share your experience with other people--most swims accommodate six. You get your chance to touch, and dance with or perhaps hug or kiss a dolphin, 30 to 45 minutes in the water. 

But a whole day . . . 

We worked first with Linda Erb, VP of Animal Care and Training. We learned the dolphins are given water, because the fish they’re fed don't contain the amount of water found in live fish. (They do catch fish themselves, but their diet comes mostly from their trainers.) We saw how willing they were to accept their water tubes, and also how they seemed to appreciate the care they received for cuts they received from just swimming around or rough-housing with each other. 

Dolphin_tow_with_the_babies We started with the babies. We learned how the mothers watch over their young ones, swimming by to check us out. At any time, the dolphins are free to swim away from their trainers. Yes, they work for fish -- but for attention and affection from their trainers as well. Linda has been there 27 years, and they greet her as warmly as my pups greet me when I come into the house. With Linda giving us instructions, we learned the signals the "babies," Flagler and Gambit, are learning at the same time. 

Next, we worked with slightly older "children," Delta and Luna, who are almost two. Kathy and I got to be the first non-real trainers the "children" have ever taken on dorsal tows, and there were false starts, but we all learned together, and it was amazing. 

We exited the water, and I was sad, thinking my time was over . . .

But, then--there's more!

Next we worked with the "boys," Kibby and Tanner. I'm particularly fond of Tanner. I was there right after he was born several years ago. Tanner pretends that he remembers me, and we work on signals, and feed them fish and ice (they love ice!) and I'm thinking once again, this has been wonderful . . .

But it's only beginning. Mandy Rodriguez, co-founder and COO, is there to work with us, too. The Dolphin dream date--the babies flying high dolphins are his children; long ago, the place had been Flipper's school; several of the dolphins today are movie stars as well. Mandy wanted to learn about dolphins and teach the world. He didn't want circus tricks; he wanted a real research center, where, yes, they entertain guests, but so much more. There’s an autistic boy there on our dream date day, as the dolphins work with those who need their therapeutic presence. Soldiers, back from trauma, swim with the dolphins, along with other special needs individuals. They've published their findings, and done some of the first "recognition" research, and proven numerous theories regarding the remarkable intelligence of the animals. 

This is a most unusual place; many of the trainers stay forever. It's a family, dolphins included. They are never sold; Mandy would not split up old friends. Dolphins come and dolphins stay. I asked Mandy about hurricanes. When storms come, all the gates are open. The dolphins are free to protect themselves at sea. Every single dolphin has always returned to the center when the danger has passed.

Dolphin dream date--me and a hug from Santini Santini is an extraordinary dolphin. She enjoys people as much as people enjoy her. As a group, Kathy, Mandy, Linda, and I went in with Santini. A dream date? I definitely fell in love. Santini was happy to play, do dorsal tows, backward tows, foot-push tows. She loved to hang around for kisses, and she was even fond of hugs. She's ticklish, and loved to be scratched right on the upper chest. When Kathy and I made mistakes, Santini was training us how to train. 

Dolphin Research Center takes in dolphins and other creatures that can no longer be kept at their original homes, or have been so injured that they can’t return to the wild. Louis breaks my heart, rescued from New Orleans, a victim of the oil spill. Only the diligent care and patience of those who helped in the crisis saved Louis's life. If you've seen what the spill did to birds, fish, and sea mammals, you can well imagine.

Ajax . . . Ajax will never really be whole. He was bitten several times by a bull shark. Students at a Florida University research center studied his injuries along with the jaws and bite precision of many sharks to make that determination. He was young when he was rescued, and they believe his mother was killed in her attempts to save him--a mother dolphin is an excellent mom.

Dolphin dream date--Kathy, Heather, and karen, the blind seal Another creature that needed a bit of saving? Karen, the blind sea lion. I'm in awe as I watch the way Mandy’s daughter Kelly works with Karen. Her voice is soft and filled with humor and affection. Karen came from a facility where she had outgrown her usefulness, but she had been trained for many tricks. Re-training her so that she doesn't perform at the slightest touch has kept Kelly busy. Karen has received surgery on their eyes, and they believe they can restore some of her sight. She is fun--and obviously loves Karen so much that she's even happy to have Kathy and me.

If you're ever in the Florida Keys, come by. You don't have to swim; you can watch, you can learn. There are beautiful birds here, friendly neighborhood cats, a "splash" zone for children. It's totally nonprofit--you can also find the little square memorials or honorary plaques in the trail that I have there for my mom, dad, stepfather, brother-in-law, and sister. 

Most of all, you'll find an experience with dolphins that's amazingly human. 

I want to do it all again, and again, and again . . . . 

If only all dream dates could be so wonderful! Dolphin dream date--smooch with santini



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Yes, Heather, the dolphins are beautiful, but as I look at these photos, all I can say is . . . I LOVE your hair color!

Good Lord, Heather, what an experience! Talk about something that will live in your heart forever... WOW!

The closest I ever came to anything like this was feeding the dolphins at Sea World... but you've got me itching for a Road Trip down South!

What a wonderful day - thanks for sharing it with us!

WOw! HOw amazing! And you look so happy..

Fabulous! What a great day! But, honestly, does Mary Stella have a great day job or what?!

What a beautiful post, Heather. Thank you for sharing.

Just reading your summary of our day makes me want to run away from home and join the DRC! Thank you so very much for sharing that great day with me, Heather. And, no joke. You truly are a Pisces. Every time you took a turn in the bay with a dolphin you looked like a Mermaid frolicking with her friends. Love you, girl! xox

Nancy, I have the best day job in the world. I love my DRC family - people, dolphins, sea lions - and being part of our mission. (We're a nonprofit organization.) It's a privilege to witness and participate in so many different, meaningful activities.

Heather, seeing you and Kathy have so much fun and enjoy the Dream Date was terrific for all of us. You "get" us and that matters. Many, many thanks for your enthusiasm and support, and for sharing your story here today.

Heather kissed a dolphin, and she liked it!

Too fun; thanks for sharing the experience and the photos with us. A Dream Date, for sure.

LOL, Karen. If you're ever in the area, check out Santini. She's wonderfully affectionate--the best kisses. It's so cool, you cup their little jaws and draw them to you. (Okay, they're not that little.) Mary, thanks for all that you do.
William, yes, come on down!

They're funny, too. Really like people. I was doing the "foot" tow with Santini when Gypsy left her group to come over and join in. I asked Mandy, because there is so much controversy, about the dolphins. They've been released for several storms or "almost" storms, and they always come back.

My youngest daughter lives in Miami, for at least the next three years. I might actually get to go there sometime.

Wow, Heather!
What a fabulous experience for you!
I just love reading about this. Thanks so much for sharing such a wonderful experience!!

Thanks so much for sharing this with us, Heather. It's just wonderful. I have a young friend who worked there during a college break and of course she just loved it.

Can you tell more about Ajax? Can he swim okay? Does he interact as the others do? What is it about him that may never be whole? Thanks.

What a fantastic day!!! Thanks for sharing. I need to plan a getaway and take the kids - they'd love this!

There's nothing like swimming with the Dolphins. I want to do it again and again. You look like you had a wonderful time....you deserve it!!

Wonderful post! When I took my niece to Hawaii, a baby dolphin left her trainer to swim over and greet my niece, as the trainers admonished, "Ignore her. She's not supposed to be doing that." As if anyone could ignore such cuteness. The mother was blind, but in that setting at least, quite capable.

Nancy, did you have a friend do an internship or volunteer here? Cool!

Jax was rescued from the St. John's River up near Jacksonville when he was less than one year old. No mom or pod around and he had a mangled dorsal fin, chewed up tail fluke and injury to one of his pectoral flippers, plus some obvious bite marks on his body.

At that age, a young dolphin is still dependent on Mom for nursing (although they've started to eat some fish), but also for learning social skills and survival skills like hunting, etc.

Jax required a lengthy rehab. At his age to release him back out into the open oceans alone would have resulted in his death. The government deemed him non-releasable and we offered him a permanent home in our family.

I'm happy to say that he swims and plays normally. Whether eventually his misshapen tail fluke will affect his power or heights he can reach, we don't know, but it doesn't affect his quality of life. He really is a charmer and fits in so well with the rest of the family.

Here's a link to our webcam: http://www.dolphins.org/webcam.php. From 9 am to 4:30 pm we have that on with different views of different lagoons. Underneath the webcam "picture" is a place where you can click to see various videos we've done. Scroll down the list and you'll see the trailer for a video about Jax. That will give you a real look at him and his healed up little body.

Other videos show our youngsters, some of our research, our Dolphin of the Month videos, etc.

What a great blog! I would be thrilled to kiss a dolphin too!!! Looks like you had the time of your life there Heather! Your smile proves it!
Mary Stella does have the best job in the world!!

What a beautiful, moving post. I can only imagine how wonderful you must have felt after that "date." Thank you for the pictures...

While I have not had the opportunity to swim, I have visited DRC and it is a remarkable place! Thank you Heather, for the way your words take me back to my visit. Someday I would love to get in the water with these beautiful animals!

Mary, thank you! My young friend's name is Megan, and I'm pretty sure she wa a fairly recent intern. Does she sound familiar to you? Her parents are friends of mine. Megan has done a wonderful series of dolphin paintings.

Jax is amazing--I wasn't in the water with him, but seeing him play from the dock was awesome. He doesn't know he has a handicap, and of course, he's learned to swim around just fine as he is.

There were several young people working, interning there, when we visited. They seemed to be awesome as well. I got to do all the fun things while the interns work pretty hard; they deal with the birds, feeding, cleaning, the fish, and keeping the facility nice. They do a great job of it. The center is easy and natural--and remarkably clean.

Not to take anything away from other places; I've been on many dolphin swims. But the working relationship here is unlike anything I have ever seen. Trainers don't come and go--they become part of a family. The dolphins are not trained as circus performers, though they do all the tricks magnificently. But above all, it's a place where care for the creatures--and even concern for their sensibilities--rises above all else. The dolphins know it; they show real affection for the people they know, and they're willing to trust new people--as long as they're introduced by their "own" people!

I love the DRC too - really great people, and amazing animals! So glad you got the whole day, Heather!

I would love to go there to be in the wter with the dolphns - just a dream,though. Thanks Heather. I love your hair color, too. xo

Thanks,on the hair! It actually changes on a monthly basis . . . ! (There have to be two boxes of a color; too much hair.) When they don't have the one the I want . . . well, I want the one they have. Yes, I could go get it done. I'm too impatient!

Forgot to post the website for them!


Nancy, this is going to sound awful, but we've had a few Megans. I tend to get to know the Research or Education interns the best because our departments are in the same building. How old is your Megan? It's also possible that she came this summer in our DolphinLab classes.

Wonderful post, Heather. I know you and Piks had a great time. I stopped by the DRC on my way back from Key West for a short time in July. Mary was a terrific hostess. It was way too short - I need to go back and swim. It's something I truly want to do. And Mary does have the best job in the world!


I have to plan to do this next summer.

Thanks for the info Heather, I am curious....have you seen "The Cove?" and have you met Ric O'Barry?

What a blast! They're like lovable dogs! Amazing!

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