Dolphin Connection Blog
Dolphin Connection Blog - February 2012 February 1, 2012
Frequently, when swimming with the dolphins at Hawks Cay Resort, guests wonder why our population is all male. “Where are all the females?” Great question! The answer is, “All over the country.”
Dolphin Connection is a founding member of the Bottlenose Dolphin Breeding Consortium, bringing together groups of like-minded institutions to collectively manage a sustainable and genetically-sound population of bottlenose dolphins. Formed in 1999, this pioneering venture has produced more than 20 successful bottlenose dolphin calves to date, nine of them right here at Dolphin Connection. The Consortium is a partnership of skilled marine mammal specialists from zoos and aquariums all across the United States who work closely together to ensure the healthiest and most successful pregnancies and offspring.
Because of the close attention paid to genetics, the current population of bottlenose dolphins in zoos and aquariums is strong enough to sustain itself through healthy breeding for over 100 years. That’s over 100 years with no need to collect animals from the wild! In this country no facility has collected dolphins from the wild since the 1980s, and Dolphin Connection has never collected animals from the wild. We are very proud of this fact, but it is not just a product of good luck. Members of the Breeding Consortium collectively and voluntarily adhere to the highest of standards with regards to animal care. It is this care that is responsible for the unprecedented success in bottlenose dolphin reproduction and we are honored to be establishing excellence for the future.
Because dolphins in zoos and aquariums are living such long lives - the oldest is 58 years old – you can still find animals at facilities who were originally collected from the wild back when this was still occurring in the 1960s and ‘70s. These animals are frequently referred to as “founders” because their genetic material is the foundation of the breeding population currently thriving in zoos and aquariums. Through advances in husbandry training, including semen collection, founder males are able to contribute to a “frozen zoo” which will allow them to continue to father calves for years to come. Just one more example of the cutting edge science which, when utilized by animal trainers with vision and heart, leads to amazing progress in the field of marine mammal care and reproduction.
When you come to the beautiful Florida Keys to swim with dolphins at Dolphin Connection, you may be meeting our all-male “bachelor pod”. Just as in the wild populations studied by field researchers, the male dolphins at Dolphin Connection are pair-bonded in groups of two or three individuals. This important relationship is in contrast to that typically seen in females who live in larger, but much more fluid, social groups. Male dolphins will form tight bonds with only one or two other animals and will remain with those animals for their entire lives, hunting, playing and looking out for predators together. When you meet Dolphin Connection’s bachelor pod, you’ll know that they are a part of a very important group of animals who have fathered, and continue to father, healthy dolphin calves around the country.
Dolphin Connection Blog - January 2012 January 2, 2012
Happy New Year!
Depending on what portion of the country you live in – and how thick the layer of snow on your roof is – it might be hard to imagine yourself applying sunscreen as you prepare to slide into the water to swim with dolphins. Here at Dolphin Connection at Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys, we are lucky enough to enjoy sunshine, palm trees, saltwater and dolphins all year ‘round, which means we are very careful about protecting our skin with sunscreen every day. Unfortunately, the toxins found in ordinary sunscreens wash right into the water and can harm the marine environment and the animals who depend on it. This fact used to pose a conflict for us between protecting our own health and that of the sea. Passionate as we are about dolphin conservation, we are just as concerned with the health of the oceans: after all, they are the only home the dolphins have. In fact, down here in the Florida Keys we are honored to live on the only barrier coral reef in the continental US. This fragile and precious habitat deserves some very careful treatment.
It is for this reason that Dolphin Connection has recently partnered with Reef Safe™ sunscreens. Reef Safe™ products are waterproof, biodegradable and are non toxic to marine life. Not only do all the trainers on the Dolphin Connection team use this sunscreen, we provide it – free of charge – for our guests to apply prior to entering the water with the dolphins. We even sell it for those folks who want to minimize their impact on the planet even after their vacation to the islands is over – inspiring conservation, after all, is what we do. As another new year begins, we are all thinking about resolutions that will benefit the planet as well as ourselves. Dolphin Connection’s pledge to protect the oceans while protecting our skin begins with Reef Safe™. If you are interested in making a similar resolution, we encourage you to visit www.reefsafesuncare.com
The dolphins will thank you!
Dolphin Connection Blog - December 2011 November 30, 2011
Happy Holidays everyone! December is here, and with it comes the season of joy, love and gift giving. Dolphin Connection is blessed with the presence of joy and love in our lives every day throughout the year, thanks to our beautiful dolphins, but did you know we also get into the gift-giving spirit of the holiday? Dolphin Connection has a long history of making donations to wild dolphin research and conservation efforts, and this year is no different. In fact, this year these donations are more important than ever before.
While I gaze out onto the pristine lagoon at Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys, enjoying people’s carefree smiles as they swim with dolphins, it is easy to forget that less than two years ago we all watched in horror as oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon accident. Though the spill never reached us here, we were nonetheless heartbroken for the people and animals who were injured or killed during this environmental disaster. While it may be years before the long term impacts of the spill on the local dolphin population is known, researchers are already studying the short term effects, and this is where Dolphin Connection plays a role.
For years, one of Dolphin Connection’s conservation partners and donation recipients has been the Sarasota Dolphin Research Project, based at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida (www.sarasotadolphin.org). The long term research happening in Sarasota Bay has provided some of the most important and relevant information about the natural history and behavior of the wild bottlenose dolphin. Through donations of money, supplies and staff time, Dolphin Connection has proudly been involved with this very important study. Now, this same research group will be analyzing the health of the population of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins found in the Gulf of Mexico. This study, entitled “West Florida Shelf Bottlenose Dolphins: Population Structure, Health, Oil Spill Impacts”, will require many pieces of data collection, one of which is ultrasound data on individuals in this Gulf dolphin population. Scientists from the National Marine Mammal Foundation, based in San Diego, California, will provide the ultrasound expertise required for this very important field research (www.nmmfoundation.org). Dolphin Connection is funding this ultrasound analysis in an effort to better understand the health of the dolphins and the challenges that they, and future generations, may face in the coming years.
So as the holiday season arrives, blanketing us all in the warmth of family, merriment and love, Dolphin Connection would like to send out a wish for a peaceful and healthy year to you, and to all the dolphins around the world.
Happy Holidays, from Dolphin Connection.
Dolphin Connection Blog - November 2011 November 4, 2011
Fall is here, there’s a chill in the air and Thanksgiving is right around the corner. If ever there was a time to pause and appreciate what we’re grateful for, this is that time. Here at Dolphin Connection, we spend our days under the palm trees at the gorgeous Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys, surrounded by dolphins. It’s certainly not difficult for us to count our blessings.
For anyone who’s ever had a dream and been lucky enough to see that dream realized, you know exactly how a dolphin trainer feels every day. Coming to work and spending your day with the animals you loved as a child, making a living at a job that fulfills you and surrounding yourself with people who inspire you – not many people can say they do that. But have a conversation with the team at Dolphin Connection, and you’ll hear that same story repeated over and over. I, in fact, had just such a conversation with this group of people and hearing the passion, respect and joy in their voices was simply awe inspiring:
“I come to work every day with people who are so dedicated and hard-working. My co-workers are some of the most selfless people I have ever met! They care so much about the animals, and to share a common goal about which we are all so truly passionate is a great thing!”
“I am so continually thankful that I am where I am, doing such an incredible job and working with such amazing animals and co-workers”
“I love and look forward to my job each day, because no day is ever the same – our dolphins are more than likely to provide an extra special moment, our guests might have an inspiring comment and our team is so closely knit that we are bound to have some fun! I am grateful for the smiles I see on our guests when meeting the dolphins – each one fills me with hope that our dolphins will inspire more people to care for the environment.”
“When I come into work every morning, I hear the vocalizations coming from the lagoon, signaling from the dolphins it’s time to get the day started! It makes me smile and immediately brightens my day.”
“Not many people have the opportunity to sort herring while drinking their morning coffee! Each day I have the opportunity to positively impact the lives of five incredible animals and the lives of many human visitors as well.”
“I am grateful for everything that comes included with this job: the beautiful animals, our wonderful staff and the smiles that always seem to appear on anyone’s face who visits with our dolphins. It was always a childhood dream of mine to work with dolphins. I always look forward to coming into work after my weekend, and I always leave at the end of the day with a smile on my face (and I’m not exaggerating). Dolphins always leave people feeling happier. THAT is why I love my job.”
“I have my dream job. I am thankful for the amazing coworkers, both human and dolphin, that I get to share my days with, but even more, I'm thankful that I get to work in an environment that encourages me to share my passion and love for animals and conservation.”
“My uniform is a bathing suit and my office is the ocean.”
Here at Dolphin Connection we love what we do, we’re grateful for the chance to do it, and we’re thankful to everyone who comes to spend time with us and our beautiful dolphins. Maybe this Thanksgiving will bring you to the Florida Keys for some time to count your blessings with your family. We’d love to have you share your holiday with us, and let us share everything we’re thankful for with you.
Dolphin Connection Blog - October 2011 September 30, 2011
What a wonderful time to be in the Florida Keys. The weather is warm. The summertime crowds are gone. It’s the perfect season to come to Hawks Cay Resort and swim with dolphins. It’s also a great time to really soak up your surroundings in the leisurely manner that defines Keys living. Rather than rushing from one activity to the next, we encourage you to smell the salt air, taste the fresh seafood and watch a beautiful sunset. Once you’ve reminded yourself what it feels like to slow down and relax, why not take a nice leisurely walk around the lagoon at Dolphin Connection. Not only will you be able to observe the dolphins as you walk, you will also be guided along by our newest addition: beautiful, informative and thought provoking graphics which tell the story of Dolphin Connection, its residents, their wild cousins and the oceans we all need to survive.
As longtime leaders in the field of dolphin care, training and reproduction, Dolphin Connection is also dedicated to making marine education available to everyone. Have you ever wondered how a dolphin sleeps? What we do during a hurricane? Where our dolphins came from? What you can do to protect wild dolphins? The answers to these frequently asked questions, and many others, are here for you to discover. Whether you’re a local, a guest of the resort or someone who’s in town simply to meet the dolphins, our goal is to provide accurate and inspiring information to anyone who’s ready to learn.
Dolphin Connection’s mission is to provide public programs which inspire awareness and positive change on behalf of the marine environment through direct contact with marine mammals. While we absolutely believe in the power of experiential education and hands-on learning, we understand that for some people, a peaceful stroll while quietly reading at your own pace may be more your style. Whichever approach works best for you, our goal is to make sure that marine conservation education is available to everyone. A parent with young children who choose not to participate in a dolphin encounter can still offer them the chance to learn all they want about dolphins. Teenagers not working directly with dolphin trainers can still read all about careers in the field and the science behind animal training. Teachers who bring their classes to observe the dolphins can teach about how researchers study dolphins in the wild. And of course, for all of you who learn best by immersing yourself in the experience, you are always invited to join us for an unforgettable swim with our dolphins.
However you prefer to learn, whether it’s from our vibrant dolphin trainers and our charismatic dolphins or from colorful displays designed with you in mind, we are ready to teach! Dolphin Connection’s commitment to education knows no limits. We guarantee that a visit here will leave you knowing more and caring more about your planet, but that’s not all. While on an island, surrounded by water, with the only live coral barrier reef in the continental US, you’ll have multiple opportunities to leave your mark on the oceans. A visit to Dolphin Connection will leave you with knowledge about how to have a positive impact whether it’s while you fish, dive, eat or even shop. So come on out, enjoy all that the Keys have to offer, let your mind and body relax while your brain takes in everything that we have to teach.
We look forward to seeing you here!
Dolphin Connection Blog - September 2011 September 1, 2011
For many of us, September means the end of summer and back-to-school. What about the dolphins – do they go to school? The answer, in fact, is “Yes”. Every trained behavior that you can see the dolphins do at Dolphin Connection was trained by a dedicated teacher, and learned by a hard-working student. The only difference is that here, our teachers are dolphin trainers, our students are dolphins and our school takes place in a natural saltwater lagoon at Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys!
One question we hear a lot is, “How did you teach them to do that?” The truth is that dolphin training is based on a scientifically sound method called Operant Conditioning. The primary tools that a trainer needs when working with a dolphin are reinforcement, a bridge and a target.
“Reinforcement” just refers to a special treat the trainer can give to the dolphin. We all know that we’re more inclined to complete a task if we get something special in return; the same is true for dolphins. Their favorite treats are fish, toys, rubs, ice cubes, and even gelatin!
A “bridge” is the tool used to let a dolphin know he has done something correctly. A whistle is the most commonly used tool for communicating this message. The term “bridge” is used because the whistle bridges the gap in time between the correct behavior and the time the dolphin receives his treat. After all, a beautiful high jump in the middle of the lagoon can’t be reinforced until the dolphin has made his way all the way back to his trainer, and we want to make sure we are being clear about which part was correct.
A “target” is exactly what it sounds like: something for the dolphin to aim for. Typically the target will be the trainer’s hand, possibly their foot, and sometimes it’s a bead at the end of a long pole. Training a dolphin to touch a target with its head, rostrum or flipper is the beginning of many of the most fun and exciting behaviors you’ll see them do!
There’s one more piece of the puzzle that may be the most important piece of all: the relationship between the trainer and the dolphin. Built on trust and affection, this relationship is truly the foundation of the training process. Think back to your own school days. While you may not remember the books and games and tools that your teachers used to teach, I bet you do remember the teacher who took the time to get to know you and really cared about you. The same is true with dolphins. Taking the time to care, and to learn each individual’s interests and motivations is a crucial part of being a great trainer.
Now how do all of these tools work together? First, a trainer will start by giving treats to a dolphin while “tweeting” the whistle. Soon the dolphin will learn that the whistle means a treat is coming. Not surprisingly, the whistle becomes a very positive sound! Next, the trainer may touch the dolphin’s flipper prior to blowing the whistle. This teaches the dolphin that making contact with the trainer’s hand is the desired behavior. Eventually, the dolphin will take the initiative to touch the trainer with his flipper. This is target training! By moving the target around, a trainer can lead the dolphin to jump, flip and more. In the final stage of training, a trainer will phase out the target and phase in a hand motion. In this way, the most subtle flick of a wrist can communicate volumes from a trainer to a dolphin. Sound like magic? It’s not. Try these very same techniques with your dog, cat or fish at home. Just like our dolphins, they’ll enjoy the physical and mental stimulation that a fun training session with their favorite person can provide.
As you all return to school, you can be sure that the dolphins and their trainers here at Dolphin Connection are doing the exact same thing, and when your next holiday brings you back to the Florida Keys, let us show you all the new things we’ve learned together!
Dolphin Connection Blog - August 2011 August 1, 2011
Ah August. The dog days of summer. The water is warm, the air is warmer. It’s the perfect time to swim with dolphins in the Florida Keys. Coincidentally, these conditions are also perfect for hurricanes. It’s something we put up with as part of an otherwise idyllic life in paradise. Some years we’re lucky as the storms fly right past us, leaving us with nothing but a cooling breeze and a refreshing sprinkle. Some years, we’re faced with a more dangerous reality as damaging winds and rain swirl over our island chain. In the event of just such an occurrence, all of us – dolphins and trainers – hit the road for higher and drier ground. Every year we renew agreements with our professional colleagues at marine mammal facilities around the country, stating that in the event of a hurricane, we may house our dolphins with them until such a time as it is safe for all of us to return home. This way, as hurricane season approaches we can relax, knowing we all have shelter to keep us safe from the storm.
So how does one evacuate dolphins? Custom made, fleece-lined transport stretchers, complete with holes for the flippers allow us to easily lift the dolphins from the water and carry them to the vehicle on which they’ll travel first class to calmer weather. When you’re here at Hawks Cay, come watch our morning training session and you may notice the trainers asking the dolphins to swim in and out of the small pools located between the two main lagoons. It is these pools from which we would lift the dolphins during an evacuation. We regularly practice having the dolphins spend time in these middle pools while learning that they are just as fun as the larger lagoons, and that food, toys and attention come just as frequently here as anywhere else.
After being lifted from their lagoon, the dolphins are moved into a vehicle such as a truck or a plane. Salt water-filled transport tanks provide the necessary zero gravity environment for the dolphins to ease any pressure on their large bodies, while also offering the moisture and minerals that their skin requires. During an evacuation, the training staff will travel with the dolphins in the back of the vehicle. This close contact also allows the staff to observe the animals, whose behavior they know better than anyone else, easily identifying any needs the dolphins may have or any ways in which we can make their travel more comfortable.
Every year we hope for a peaceful and easy hurricane season. Knowing that we are all prepared in the event that a serious storm approaches allows us to relax and enjoy the wonderful weather for as long as we have it. If you have a late-summer vacation planned in the Florida Keys, make it an experience you’ll never forget by spending time with the dolphins at Dolphin Connection. And rest assured that if there are stormy skies ahead, all of us will be just fine.
Dolphin Connection Blog - July 2011 July 1, 2011
Dolphin training is an ever-evolving art and science. Every day at Dolphin Connection we adapt and improve our animal care and training program so that we can create the happiest, healthiest and most enriching home for our dolphins. Our passion and dedication at Dolphin Connection is obvious to everyone who comes here to swim with the dolphins, but what our guests may not know is that everything we do is built on a foundation of knowledge and understanding that began over 50 years ago at an oceanarium in St. Augustine, Florida called Marineland.
Marineland, originally named Marine Studios, was developed to be an underwater film studio. Without the advanced technology that we now have allowing cameras to go underwater, there was a need in Hollywood for an aquarium that was designed with the film maker’s needs in mind. The original founders of Marine Studios all had ties to Hollywood and passions for science, and together they built the World’s First Oceanarium in 1938. The term oceanarium was coined to describe Marine Studios because it was the ocean in an aquarium. Mixed species, both predators and prey, lived together, simulating the ocean in above-ground pools with windows on all sides. No matter the lighting or the animals’ behavior, there was always a perfect angle for a cameraman.
Years of caring for the marine life at the oceanarium taught the aquarists, scientists and divers that the dolphins seemed to be particularly interactive, curious, social and intelligent. The question was raised, “Can a dolphin be trained?” In 1949 a young male dolphin was paired with an experienced animal trainer in an effort to answer this question. Beyond everyone’s wildest expectations, Flippy became the world’s first trained dolphin and in 1952 he was starring in his own show. Yes, dolphins can be trained!
The phenomenal history of the World’s First Oceanarium and Flippy, the world’s first trained dolphin, is told in a book titled Marineland, co-authored by two of Dolphin Connection’s employees and recently released by Arcadia Publishing. Marineland is truly a tribute to the people, the animals and the oceanarium that paved the way for places like Dolphin Connection. Once upon a time, we didn’t know all we do now about dolphin natural history, behavior, care and training, and a group of ground breaking individuals made those discoveries. This is their story. Marineland is fascinating for anyone who loves dolphins, anyone who loves animal training or anyone who wonders how we do what we do!
As you plan your summer vacation to the Florida Keys to swim with dolphins at Hawks Cay Resort, you know you’re going to need some reading material while you’re relaxing by the pool. Why not learn a little bit, while you’re at it, about the best career in the world and the people who got to do it first!
Dolphin Connection Blog - May 2011 May 2, 2011
There are very few places we’d rather be than the Florida Keys in springtime, but last month four Dolphin Connection employees made their way to Alexandria, Virginia for the annual meeting of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. Professional development opportunities such as this play a large part in the staff training that is crucial to ensuring that you receive the most current and accurate information when you come to swim with dolphins at Dolphin Connection. This year, topics on the agenda included the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill as well as current research on the effects of ocean sounds on marine mammal behavior.
Almost exactly one year ago, we all watched with horror as a deadly explosion in the Gulf of Mexico led to the largest accidental marine oil spill in history. Now, as reports of stranded marine mammals – especially dolphin calves – seem to be on the rise, everyone is wondering what the short and long term effects of this disaster will be to our precious marine life and marine habitats. As Trevor Spradlin, a biologist with the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, explained, signs of increased mortalities among bottlenose dolphins had already been noted in the Gulf of Mexico prior to the oil spill. This increased mortality rate has continued throughout and after the oil spill, so now scientists are working diligently on determining the many factors that may be involved. Data collected from both living and stranded animals in the Gulf will be compared to data from the Sarasota Dolphin Research Project that Dolphin Connection has supported with funding, staff and supplies for many years. Using the information from the Sarasota Bay population of dolphins as a control will allow biologists to better identify and understand any abnormalities in the Gulf of Mexico populations. The results from this all-important study can be tracked by visiting www.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov.
Meanwhile, across the country in California, Brandon Southall with Southall Environmental Associates, Inc., is studying the effects that manmade sounds in the oceans may have on marine mammal populations. As both human-caused and natural sounds make the ocean a very noisy place, the resulting impact on wildlife has been a topic of concern for quite a while. This project, titled SOCAL-10, took place in the rich in-shore marine habitats along the Southern California coast where a variety of marine mammals can be found. Using behavioral observation, as well as computerized tracking of animals with satellite tags, the SOCAL-10 project analyzed the behavior of animals before, during and after exposure to loud noises. With data still being analyzed and future studies in the works, the initial consensus is that the impacts of noise on marine mammals cannot be summarized in one simple sentence. The species of animal (blue whale? bottlenose dolphin? sperm whale?), as well as that animal’s behavior at the time of its encounter with the noise (hunting? resting? migrating?), are all variables that must be considered. Future studies will continue to attempt to answer the “What, When, Where and How?” with regards to the effects of sound pollution in our seas.
With our brains full of new information about our beautiful and fragile planet, we happily returned to the Florida Keys in time to watch the sun set over the water, reminding us why we do what we do. We look forward to your visit to Hawks Cay Resort, and if you’d like to know what’s new in the world of conservation, just come on down and ask your Dolphin Connection staff!
Dolphin Connection Blog - April 2011 April 1, 2011
We live a charmed life here in the Florida Keys. At the beautiful Hawks Cay resort, surrounded by dolphins, it’s easy for us to forget that not everyone lives in paradise. Last month we were visited by an amazing family who reminded us that we should never take anything for granted.
Lauren Shields is a vibrant, well-spoken, intelligent, animal-loving, ten year old girl. Along with her brother, Brandon, and her mom and dad, Jeanne and David, she used to visit the Keys every year to take a break from the New York winter. The family hasn’t been back to our islands for several years and now that they’re returned, they all agree this has been the best visit yet!
In April 2008 Lauren got sick and was diagnosed with heart disease. By February of 2009 Lauren was on the list to receive a heart transplant and in March she received her new heart. The recovery wasn’t easy and side effects from the surgery and a subsequent stroke and coma left her very weak with a long road ahead of her. Lauren worked hard, attending physical and occupational therapy and as she told her therapists, her one goal was to be able to walk into class on her own two feet when school started again that Fall. Hearing her daughter express that dream made her mom shudder – nobody knew whether Lauren would ever walk again. We should never doubt the will of a little girl: Lauren walked right into her classroom in September 2009 with the press documenting her every move. Lauren is a local celebrity and she has a wonderful story to share to a world that isn’t always rich with happy news.
The illness has taken its toll on everyone who loves Lauren and they all deserve the opportunity to relax and celebrate her health, so this year they’ve renewed their annual Florida Keys vacation tradition. If ever there were kids who deserve the opportunity to play with dolphins, Lauren and Brandon do, and here’s where Dolphin Connection joins the story. On March 1 we were honored to welcome them onto the docks for a very special Dockside Dolphins program. There was clapping and splashing and dancing and laughing – anyone watching would have just noticed two happy kids meeting some dolphins. Lauren’s mom knew better. She says her entire family now appreciates the little things, and that the big things seem extra magnificent. Today’s adventure was a BIG thing! After the program was done, we asked Lauren and her big brother, Brandon, how they enjoyed their experience. Lauren eloquently answered that any family would love meeting dolphins, but that for a family who has been through sadness, it means even more. “The dolphins sound happy, they look happy, they smile at you. They just cheer you up in a flash!” Brandon added, “They just lighten your mood!” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
Upon her return to New York, Lauren has another big adventure ahead of her. She is the guest speaker at a press conference about a new law – appropriately called “Lauren’s Law” - which would mandate that every driver’s license applicant answer the organ donor question on the paperwork, rather than having the option to leave it blank. Organ donation is understandably something Lauren is passionate about, and thanks to a wonderful heart donor, the dolphins and staff at Dolphin Connection were able to get to know Lauren and be inspired by her amazing story. Thank you Shields family.
Dolphin Connection Blog - March 2011 February 28, 2011
One of the most frequently asked questions we receive here at Dolphin Connection is, “How do you become a dolphin trainer?” The truth is that there are many qualities that we look for when we hire people to care for and train the dolphins, but top on our list is previous experience. Well then, you may ask, how does one obtain that initial experience if you need to already have experience in order to find a job? It seems like a tricky problem, but the solution is actually quite simple: volunteer internships. Here at Dolphin Connection, our internship program is available to college students who are considering pursuing a career in this field. For several months, our interns assist with all aspects of our day-to-day operations including cleaning, fish preparation, public speaking, cleaning, assistance with animal training and husbandry, and did I mention cleaning? The internship is a very real view into the life of a dolphin trainer. By the end of the program, our interns should have a clear idea about their future career plans, not to mention a valuable new addition to their resume and priceless hands-on experience.
As a globally recognized leader in the field of animal care and training, Dolphin Connection receives internship applications from around the world. This winter we’ve been hosting a promising young intern all the way from Denmark whose presence adds to the international flavor of Hawks Cay resort! Closer to home, we work with the career centers at colleges and universities throughout Florida to recruit their students to the Florida Keys for our program. Students pursuing degrees in the behavioral, life and conservation sciences comprise the bulk of our college applicants, but students of all backgrounds and interests are welcome.
Speak with the dolphin trainers at Dolphin Connection and you’ll undoubtedly discover a group of people with diverse backgrounds, but linking them all is a passion for animal care that they’ve been nurturing their entire lives. Every one of our trainers could tell you a story about a turning point in their lives when someone along the way gave them the opportunity to “get their feet wet”. The Dolphin Connection internship program strives to provide that same opportunity to a new generation of up and coming animal care experts.
Dolphin Connection Blog - February 2011 February 1, 2011
Chances are, if you’re reading this you’re planning a vacation down to the Florida Keys or you wish you were! Either way, it’s probably colder where you are than down here in the islands. We’re lucky to have such great wintertime temperatures and we’re grateful for that every day. Nonetheless, we do feel the change of seasons to some degree and as our water temperatures cool down, all of us – people and dolphins – must adapt.
For the trainers, this means nice thick wetsuits that help us hold in our body heat when we get in the water to swim with the dolphins. Similarly, dolphins also require an added layer of insulation, but theirs comes naturally. As water temperatures decrease, a dolphin’s natural response is an increased appetite. More calories mean a thicker blubber layer and it is this blubber layer that serves as insulation – much like our wetsuits – to maintain the dolphin’s internal body temperature which is almost exactly the same as yours! Understandably, the colder it gets, the thicker this blubber layer must be in order to do its job effectively. So bring on the herring, these dolphins have some eating to do!
The blubber layer insulates the core of the dolphin’s body, but the extremities – the dorsal fin, tail fluke and pectoral flippers – do not have any blubber. For this reason, heat can be released through these areas. In the summer when water temperatures are high, dolphins’ bodies will pump more blood to these non-insulated areas where heat can be dumped through the skin. When the water gets cool, less blood circulates to the extremities so there is less of an opportunity for heat loss. Instead the blood remains primarily in the insulated core of the body. These adjustments to blood flow are automatic responses, just like shivering or perspiring are for you.
Everyone has their own methods of adapting to the seasons. If you’re reading this with a mug of hot chocolate, woolen socks, a big blanket and a warm fire burning, we invite you to come on down to Hawks Cay and visit us at Dolphin Connection where the dress code includes flip flops and a bathing suit!
Dolphin Connection Blog - January 2011 January 5, 2011
Happy New Year! We hope you all had a great holiday season. As always, we are reminded how lucky we are to be able to call the Florida Keys our home when visitors from around the world choose our island chain as their vacation destination. This season in particular gave us many things to be grateful for.
In mid-December, our facility was transformed into a set for the pilot episode of a television show which starred, among others, our very own dolphins! They were a big hit with the cast and crew alike, including George Hamilton, Sasha Jackson and Jonathan Bennett. In preparation for their moment in the spotlight, the dolphin training staff worked with the animals prior to filming on several specific behaviors, including tossing a recyclable bottle into the appropriate bin. Even when the cameras weren’t rolling, the dolphins still tossed items into the recycling bin: ever the conservationists! Keep your eyes open for “The Last Resort” in your television listings.
Later in the month, as the temperatures dropped to record lows, we were visited by a guest whose lifetime accomplishments left everyone humbled, while his warm and friendly demeanor defined southern hospitality! The 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, and his family visited the resort and spent time meeting our dolphins and other marine life around the Keys. What an amazing honor for all the staff and guests who had the opportunity to shake President Carter’s hand. We’re so proud that he and his family chose to come to Dolphin Connection.
Meanwhile, as winter officially arrived in the Keys, the staff bundled up in layers to brace against the cold, while the dolphins packed on a thicker blubber layer. An increased appetite and some extra herring help to build up this blubber which serves as insulation as the water temperatures drop. Blubber works kind of like a built-in wetsuit, which is what our guests were given before they hopped in the water for their once-in-a-lifetime holiday experience. Now, as we start off the New Year, temperatures have returned to the mid-70s and as we look back at an eventful December, we look forward to a new year full of exciting possibilities.
Dolphin Connection Blog - November 2010 November 3, 2010
Everyone at Dolphin Connection, Hawks Cay Resort (and really anyone living in the Florida Keys) will breathe a collective sigh of relief when the calendar hits the much anticipated date of November 30. Why? Because finally, the last day of hurricane season will have arrived! Hallelujah! Every year on June 1, a secret ritual begins in the islands, one I’m about to let you in on – we wake up every morning 10 minutes before the hour to tune in to the Tropical Update on The Weather Channel to find out how many named storms are out there and what their projected path might be – even before our first cup of coffee…now that’s important! And once November 30 arrives, another island-wide ritual will begin – we’ll all sleep an extra 10 minutes. ☺
The subject of hurricanes usually evokes the same question – what do you do with the dolphins when a hurricane is approaching? Well, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know by now that we pride ourselves in always being prepared. And hurricane response is no different.
We must confess that our location couldn’t be more perfect! Our lagoon is positioned on the west side of the island, naturally buffering us from storms approaching from the Atlantic Ocean. And storms coming from the Gulf of Mexico must first pass over the island chain and then beyond our breakwater wall before reaching our lagoon. Pair that with the solid concrete construction of Hawks Cay Resort, and we have a secure place to safely weather the lower category storms. Even local emergency services personnel and media took refuge here in our last big storm – Wilma in 2005. Now that’s what I call safety!
For higher category storms of stronger intensity, we do have agreements with zoological colleagues around the country, who will happily provide space for our dolphins should a storm ever chase us away from our island home. Now if I were a superstitious person I wouldn’t say this, but I’m not, so I will – in the past 20 years we have never had to transport the dolphins out of our lagoon due to a hurricane. But we do have the equipment, specially designed for each member of our dolphin family, just in case we ever need to. We take it out of storage once a year, inspect it, clean it, and put it back again…our wonderful little security blanket!
So please don’t ever let the thought of hurricanes keep you from visiting these stunning islands! The storms are few and far between – none in the last five years - and the hard-working people of the Keys are so resilient that we’re almost always fully functional by the very next day. While this is the perfect scenario for most of us, it is much to the dismay of school children Keys-wide who look forward to “hurricane days” as much as the kids up north look forward to “snow days”. We think a snow day is the perfect excuse to come down to the islands and thaw out. We’ll even promise you a hurricane to enjoy, the liquid kind, in a frosty glass with a little paper umbrella. Hmmm, maybe hurricanes aren’t so bad after all! ☺
Dolphin Connection Blog - October 2010 October 5, 2010
Fall is a beautiful time of year here at the Dolphin Connection Florida Keys. As we take a breather from the busy spring and summer seasons, we enjoy the slower pace of the fall. It gives us a chance to train new behaviors with the dolphins, create imaginative toys and behavioral enrichment ideas, welcome visiting colleagues and scientists, conduct new studies, analyze data, and prepare presentations for conferences and meetings. It also gives us a chance to clean…and while I was digging through the file cabinets (hoping to recycle most of it) I stumbled across all of our federal government files (whoops, can’t recycle those!). Looking at the extent of these files, it struck me that most people probably have no idea that the government regulates everything we do with our marine mammals here in the U.S. Did you know they insure the well-being of dolphins? I’ll bet you didn’t!
So let me be the first to introduce you to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). They are charged with watching over the oceans and the resources that live there – mostly fish, as the name would suggest. But they also take care of our wild marine mammals, monitor their health and population numbers, keep track of stranded and beached marine mammals, and create laws to protect them all. They provide the clearance for us to rehabilitate and release sick and injured marine mammals back into the wild, permits for research conducted on wild marine mammals, and they keep a record of all of the marine mammals held in zoos and aquariums.
But just as important is the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). They are charged with protecting animal health and animal welfare throughout the U.S. – a BIG job! They employ many, many veterinarians who conduct unannounced inspections of animal facilities in the U.S. at least once each year. They inspect conditions everywhere - from pet shops to farms to zoos – and use a telephone directory sized document filled with laws called the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) as their guide. But wait, marine mammals also have their own set of individual rules and laws, called the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). It’s both of these lengthy documents that tell us everything we at Dolphin Connection need to know – from what size our lagoon has be to how to sterilize our fish kitchen – so when I say everything, I mean EVERYTHING (including the kitchen sink)!
But even if you personally are a good up-standing American citizen who wanted to have a marine mammal, and can provide it with everything contained in those documents, you still can’t have one. Why not? Ahhh…because marine mammals are federally protected. And that my friends is a whole different subject for some other blog on some other day.
So for now you have one less thing to worry about - the marine mammals of the U.S. are very well protected and cared for, both at Dolphin Connection and in our oceans. Now you get back to raking those beautiful fall leaves while I go give those national treasures of ours a big, wet kiss. Better yet, why don’t you come down to Hawks Cay and collect up a big, wet dolphin kiss for yourself!☺
Dolphin Connection Blog - September 2010 September 1, 2010
Did you ever wonder how Dolphin Connection obtained its dolphins? I mean, you know what to do and where to go if you want a pet dog or cat – and the correct answer is your local animal shelter to adopt an unwanted or abandoned animal, right? Right! But could you actually have a dolphin as a pet? Might be intriguing to some of you, but the answer is no, at least not in the United States.
Marine mammals, including dolphins, whales, seals and sea lions, are federally protected in the United States. This means there are many, many good laws that protect them in the wild and govern their care and keeping. Beyond that, voluntary membership in and accreditation by professional organizations insures the absolute best care possible. We hope you’re not surprised to find that Dolphin Connection is fully accredited by the Alliance for Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums and the International Marine Animal Trainer’s Association. We strive to be the best that we can be!
So how do dolphins get to marine parks in the United States anyway? Well, I guess we should start by telling you that ZERO dolphins have been collected from the wild in the United States for well over 20 years. And there are ZERO dolphins from the Japanese drive fisheries living in the United States. Actually, if you really want to know the truth, dolphins are born here…currently about 70% of the dolphins you see at zoos and aquariums in the United States were born there…and usually their parents and grandparents were born there as well. We even keep very detailed genetic records of the US dolphins, called studbooks, that record who is related to whom - one massive dolphin family tree!
At the Dolphin Connection specifically, rest assured that we have not and do not ever collect dolphins from the wild. Since the 1990’s our ocean lagoon has housed a young and vibrant group of breeding dolphins that were originally acquired from existing zoological facilities, and we had the distinct joy and pleasure of raising nine successful dolphin babies here. We credit much of this success to lots of hard work behind the scenes! As a founding member of the Bottlenose Dolphin Breeding Consortium in 1999, Dolphin Connection works hand in hand with six “sister” zoological parks to enhance and encourage dolphin health and welfare. As a result of our collective efforts for the past 11 years, the group has welcomed the arrival of over 20 successful dolphin calves. What a glorious testimony to the power of joining forces with colleagues to directly improve the lives of the animals in our care!
While we joyously celebrate the arrival of each and every new baby that joins our extended dolphin family, we must, on the other hand, provide special care and nurturing to our aging dolphin population as well. Check this out - the oldest dolphin in the United States today is Nellie who lives at Marineland of Florida at the ripe old age of 57. Bet you didn’t know there is a large population of aging dolphins in the United States – all in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s now – certainly a testament to the wonderful care they have received throughout their incredible lives. So in more recent years, Dolphin Connection has begun providing homes to some of these aging dolphins, who are currently enjoying their retirement years in our beautiful lagoon. Gently pampered and petted, hugged and kissed, each and every day!
So the next time you want adopt a pet, please promise you’ll visit your local animal shelter…my three adopted kitties are so thankful that I did! And the next time you want a once in a lifetime chance to connect with a dolphin, rest assured that accredited US facilities are a choice you can feel good about!
Dolphin Connection Blog - June 2010 June 16, 2010
Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Ever heard that saying? Well we live it! That’s always been our frame of mind when hurricane season rolls around each year. But who knew this would ever apply to oil spill response? If you’ve visited us before, you know that each and every day we spend countless hours talking the talk – oceans are vitally important, oceans conservation needs to be a top priority – and now it’s time we walked the walk my friends. Our country is experiencing the largest oil spill in recorded history…devastating wildlife along the northern gulf coast…I know you’ve seen the pictures. Regardless of the fact that the Keys has felt zero effects from that spill, the Dolphin Connection team stands ready to respond. Get this - we have already received training for post emergency spilled oil clean up, we have already completed courses in oiled wildlife response, and have joined our local Keys community as volunteers ready, willing, and able to assist. All of this before we’ve even seen one drop of oil on our own shores – and God willing, we never will. Our hope is that we will one day be invited to the hardest hit areas to apply our newly acquired skills. We want to make a difference, and are ready to walk the walk. Are you?
Well, if you’re feeling helpless about ways you can help with this disaster, never fear…we’re here to empower you! You can volunteer your time, not so much with the spill clean-up itself, but by helping organizations that are supporting the clean-up efforts. Many non-profits are helping in some way, so research a few in your area and if you can, support by donating your time or some money to the cause.
But one of the best and easiest ways to support the effort is to REDUCE YOUR USE OF OIL. Here’s how:
Walk, bike, use mass-transit, carpool
Buy local whenever possible, so you’re buying products that haven’t been shipped very far
Stop using plastic and styrofoam, which is produced using oil (not to mention the impact on our landfills)
Turn off lights when you leave a room, unplug chargers when not in use, purchase energy saving light bulbs, and generally reduce your electricity consumption since power plants still use oil (among other resources) to produce energy
Purchase cosmetics that do not use “petrolatum” or other oil byproducts
Dolphin Connection Blog - May 2010 May 14, 2010
Every day at The Dolphin Connection we field hundreds of questions from our guests. Not surprising, since thousands of people turn to us each year in hopes of making new discoveries about dolphins, our natural world, and how to conserve it. In fact, it’s the purpose for our existence – to educate. But recently we were asked a question that completely stunned us – “Do you provide meaningful public education?” Are you kidding me? After we recovered from our initial shock at this amazingly naive question, we took it upon ourselves to examine the factual evidence, as any good scientist would do. We first turned to our survey results – derived by randomly picking a cross section of guests that participated in our interactive programs. The survey results for 2009 were impressive! A whopping 83% of our guests rated the educational content of our programs as “excellent”. In addition, 82% indicated they learned something new about dolphins, 89% about how dolphins are trained, and 92% about our highly successful breeding and marine science programs. But it keeps going (can you stand a few more numbers?) - 61% indicated they learned something new about ocean conservation as a result of participation in our programs, 58% about oceans, 56% about coral reefs, and 55% about how they could make a difference. Wow! Okay, so we have to admit, we were already confident that people were learning from us – I hope you’re not surprised by that statement! But what are they doing with this knowledge? Are they being inspired to act positively on behalf of conservation? Man, is that a hard thing to measure! So in an effort to ferret out an answer, we turned to our “thank you” files – yup, the place where we keep all those lovely cards and letters you send to us – you didn’t think we threw them away, did you? Here’s a glimpse of what you had to say: “Thank you for letting my family and I participate in your dolphin connection program. Now every time I go to the beach I remember to pick up a piece of trash or plastic.” “Thank you very much for the wonderful opportunity to swim and play with the dolphins at your facility. I truly enjoyed every second of it. Being able to experience the hands on interaction with the dolphins was a lot of fun. Not only did I love being in the water but I also enjoyed the educational part too! I never knew that it takes so many years for trash to disintegrate. The following day I picked up a plastic bottle that I saw on the ocean floor as I was snorkeling. It’s sickening to think that someone would just toss a bottle in the ocean.” Our guests are learning – check! Our guests are motivated to contribute to conservation – check! Which leads us back to the original question - Is this “meaningful public education?” Well, Webster’s dictionary describes the word meaningful as purposeful, significant. Since our purpose is to educate through direct contact with marine mammals and we have significant information that indicates our approach is successful, our answer is “Yes, The Dolphin Connection does provide meaningful public education.” We hope you knew that answer in your heart long before we went through the long process of proving it…isn’t science wonderful!
Dolphin Connection Blog - April 2010 April 9, 2010
Don’t you just love spring break? It gives families from up north the opportunity to visit, eager to soak up our generous sunshine and contagious dolphin smiles. For our staff, spring also means travel – to our nation’s capitol for the annual meeting of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. Okay, we know what you’re thinking – how can anyone look forward to meetings? Well, we think you’ll understand our excitement after you see some of the important work we accomplish at these meetings, work that reaches beyond our lagoon to protect wild dolphins everywhere. Check it out! Don’t Feed Wild Dolphins (www.dontfeedwilddolphins.org; www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/education/protectdolphins.htm) – The Dolphin Connection is proud to have joined forces with NOAA Fisheries Service, the Marine Mammal Commission, and several Alliance colleagues to sponsor a campaign which reminds people that feeding wild dolphins is not only illegal, it is harmful to dolphins, causing them to beg for food from humans which puts them at greater risk of being injured by boats, becoming entangled in fishing gear, or ingesting dangerous items like fishing hooks and contaminated food. We continue to promote this important message at home in our daily classroom sessions, making sure our guests understand that the activities they enjoy with our dolphin family would be harmful to their wild counterparts. Our dolphins as ambassadors – how cool is that? Protecting Migrating Whales and Dolphins On behalf of its members, the Alliance has signed an important cooperative agreement with the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species to help protect dolphins and whales as they migrate across the globe. Did you know that many species of marine mammals migrate to colder waters to find food and prefer to give birth in warmer areas? Well, these migrations can cover thousands of miles and can cause unique problems as the animals move through different areas of the world, with differing laws and regulations. As part of the United Nations, CMS works to establish international agreements to promote conservation efforts all along the migratory paths. Dolphins and whales in the United Nations – who would have ever have imagined? Protesting the Japanese Drive Fisheries Many people are understandably concerned about the inhumane killing of dolphins that occurs during the Japanese drive fisheries, and we absolutely agree. Sharing a deep love and respect for these amazing animals, we do not in any way support, fund, or acquire animals from the Japanese drive fisheries. That’s precisely why the Dolphin Connection, along with all Alliance members, took a stand to condemn this practice. We have urged the U.S. government to work with Japan to bring this killing to an end. If you share our concerns and want to help stop the slaughter of dolphins and whales in Japan, please write to the Prime Minister of Japan at www.kantei.go,jp/foreign/forms/comment.html and the Japanese Ambassador in Washington, D.C. at email@example.com. Become conservation partners with us – now that would truly be fantastic! So come on down and enjoy the beauty of spring in our breathtaking islands – relax by the pool, soak up the sun, and enjoy a hug and a kiss from our wonderful dolphin family if you’d like. You can rest assured that while you’re having fun, we are keeping busy behind the scenes, attempting in our own small way to be a positive influence to the world on behalf of all dolphins and the oceans they call home.
Dolphin Connection Blog - March 2010 March 3, 2010
Let us just be honest with you - we are so lucky because we have the best jobs in the world! Spending every day playing with dolphins and introducing them to eager guests is really a dream come true! Although we have so much fun building relationships with our dolphin friends, we do still have a serious responsibility on our shoulders. First, to care for the dolphins’ every need every single day, to make sure they are happy and healthy and well cared for. Second, to make personal connections happen between guests and our dolphins – ones that will empower and motivate them to care about conserving wildlife and the wild places they need to survive. This is a life-long commitment, and one we take very seriously. So as you can imagine, not just anyone can step into this important career – it takes a very special person. And although people often ask about how we train the dolphins…did you ever stop to think about how we train our trainers? Hmmmmm…good question! At first, assistant trainers spend time with our animals alongside human mentors, who already know each dolphin very well. Since each dolphin is unique, with its own personality, the goal to build a strong relationship of trust and respect with each one can be a daunting task. As you can imagine, this goal is achieved over time, one on one, through training, husbandry, encounter, play, and enrichment opportunities together. And the learning doesn’t stop once the staff member walks away from the lagoon. Assistant trainers have many, many other requirements to meet, including reading and studying materials to be covered in written tests that will help determine their qualifications for advancement. No wonder it takes one full year just to reach trainer level! This type of learning, for both the dolphins and staff, never stops. A trainer will eventually earn the opportunity to teach one of the dolphins’ a new behavior. This is always a very exciting and gratifying time! Believe it or not, the dolphins also like to learn new behavior! Training is a great way to provide stimulation and exercise. In addition to developing training and enrichment plans, trainers spend a lot of time focusing on variety – new and fun ways of providing the dolphins with plenty of stimulating activities. It makes for a very busy day, every day! No matter how experienced our staff, they never stop learning! We offer endless possibilities for the growth and advancement of even well-established staff members, including classes and seminars, conferences and trainer exchanges, field work and research – all of these serve to enhance staff development. In fact, we are honored and privileged to say that our staff training and development program was recently accredited by the International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association – only the second facility in the world to receive such a distinction! Let’s face it: a well-rounded and motivated staff translates into happy and healthy dolphins who inspire our guests to care about conservation. And in our book, nothing could be better than that!