We made our hands invisible because, as staff members Stacy and Laura explained, hand movements are unsettling for dolphins and could cause our new found friends to shy away. Why, you may wonder, did we swim as fast as possible? Because, swimming is what dolphins do. Standing still in the lagoon is a sign of aggression like challenging a boxer for his title. Our hope was for a friendly exchange and the opportunity to see these magnificent creatures close up. We had no desire to challenge the dolphins. Dolphins are built for speed and stealth. In the unlikely event we challenged them we wouldn’t stand a chance.
During our half day visit at Dolphins Plus we also participated in Structured Dolphin and Sea Lion swims. Each of the activities had its own special charm and provided us with a glimpse of the daily life and abilities of these sea animals. Prior to entering the water, we learned about Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins and sea lions and how to best interact with them while at the center thanks to the informal presentations by staff members on the shaded deck adjacent to the two natural water lagoons where the dolphins live. Once in the water, we enjoyed the activities and the quality time we spent with the animals, trainers and other visitors. We were impressed with the family owned center home of 12 Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins, including a three week old female and two sea lions. The facilities were clean, well organized and run by friendly and knowledgeable staff.
Our experience that day was thrilling and fun. We particularly appreciated the intimate experience we had during our low season visit. For example, there were only three of us during the Natural Swim (four is the maximum allowed) supervised from the outside by three staff members; four of us in the Structured Swim with one trainer; and we had a private swim with the sea lion. We particularly appreciated the facility’s emphasis on education, safety and the enjoyment of the activities by landlubber (human) and marine (dolphin and sea lion) mammals alike. We will recommend Dolphins Plus to friends. Physically fit, adventure oriented adults and children over seven eager for an in-water experience with dolphins and sea lions in a small facility focusing on education, the safety and care of visitors and animals and a quality experience for both seem ideal visitors for Dolphins Plus.
Established Dolphins Plus was established in 1980.
Handicapped Access The facilities are handicapped friendly. There were special ramps and platforms to accommodate wheelchair bound visitors.
Location The center sits on a canal on the Atlantic side of Key Largo, the first of the Florida Keys just south of Miami-Dade County in South Florida.
Managed Art Cooper, vice president, director of operations and curator
Open Year round with the exception of a handful of holidays.
Owned-Managed Lloyd and Rick Burguss
Size There were 27 staff members including 18 staff who worked directly with the animals in the 18,000 square feet facility. The marine mammals were housed in two natural sea pens measuring 9000 square feet each and ranging between 12 and 15 feet in depth. Visitors spent time in the water and in the deck area surrounding the pens.
Transportation The easiest way to reach Dolphins Plus is by car.
The marine mammals live in two natural seawater pens adjacent to a canal that leads directly to the Atlantic Ocean. Thanks to the daily tides the incoming and outgoing seawater cleanses the pens naturally. We visited three weeks after the birth of the center’s newest baby and watched enthralled as mom, dad and baby dolphins swam a scant few feet in front of where we stood.
The 30-minute Natural Dolphin Swims are entirely up to the dolphins’ moods. We were well received by the three female dolphins, including a newly arrived wild deaf dolphin, during this activity. The light morning drizzle had no visible effect on the dolphins’ enthusiasm since all the dolphins in the pen participated in that morning’s activity. Wearing fins, mask and a snorkel we entered the pen, slowly and carefully, making sure not to spook the dolphins. Our instructions were to swim from side to side and as fast as possible without bumping against the walls. Several staff members observed from above shouting encouragement, warnings and instructions. If at any time the dolphins were unhappy, they had explained at the beginning, we would have to get out. Luckily that was not an issue for us.
If a dolphin appeared we kept swimming and she would take care not to collide with us. Shortly after we entered the pen, Sarah, Castaway and Samantha showed up. They remained with us, playful and enthusiastic, during the entire 30 minutes. At times we three humans swam together holding a single floating toy; other times we swam independently. Either way it was amazing to meet these beautiful sea creatures in their own environment. It took getting used to the idea of no stopping in the water and it was startling to see one or more dolphins coming straight at me and not try to avoid them. They are such agile swimmers that although it looked like they would smack into me, they never did. On more than one occasion, they grazed me but their skin was smooth and I was never uncomfortable. I was thrilled with every encounter; I lost count after the fourth. Sometimes I had a quick glimpse of their faces while we shared a gaze.
During the Structured Dolphin Swims we touched and were touched by the dolphins during one-on-one encounters. Laura, the trainer, sat on a floating platform over one of the pens and we entered the water two at a time. Trained behaviors varied. Sometimes there were belly rubs, kisses, and dorsal tows. The mother and son dolphins seemed to enjoy the activities as much as we did.