Dolphin Connection Blog
Dolphin Connection Blog - July 2012 July 2, 2012
For some people, a vacation to the Florida Keys is a time to celebrate. For some people, it’s a time to relax. And for some people, a vacation to the Florida Keys is a time to reconnect with family. The Auxier family called upon their trip to Hawks Cay Resort last month to provide all of those things. If ever there was a family in need of some celebration, some relaxation and some family bonding, this is it!
Nancy Auxier, like any mother, has a very busy schedule. She lives in Florida with the two youngest of her four children while the other two are stationed in California and North Carolina where they are active-duty marines. For these reasons alone, a family vacation to watch the sun set in the Florida Keys would be priceless. But there’s another detail in this story. James, Mrs. Auxier’s 13 year old son, is suffering from inoperable brain cancer: Anaplastic Astrocytoma. He’s always wanted to swim with dolphins – as have his siblings – so the Marty Lyons foundation arranged for the family’s visit to Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key and some very special extracurricular activities.
On a blustery Tuesday in June, Mrs. Auxier, along with three of her four children, as well as her son-in-law, made their way to Dolphin Connection. Although her oldest son who had just returned from Afghanistan was unable to join them, this group represented the first almost-complete family reunion they’ve been able to have in while. Reconnecting with family? Check!
As the group of five slipped into the water with four beautiful dolphins, the love that this family has for animals and their fascination with marine life, was clear. James – who along with his mom watches every animal show they can find on television – wanted to know about the dolphin’s belly button. “Does it mean that they were connected with an umbilical cord?” He especially liked Lucky the dolphin and said he’s wanted to get in the water with dolphins since the first time he saw them when he was a kid. James’ little sister, Maria, is even considering being a dolphin trainer! The smiles and giggles coming from the dolphins’ lagoon could be heard all around. The Auxier family seemed to be having fun. Relaxation? Check!
In between kisses and hugs with the dolphins there was a lot of kissing and hugging going on among the family. There is clearly a lot of love here, and for Jennifer who is the oldest sister, the love was magnified. Not only was she reconnecting with her mom and sister and little brother for the first time in quite a while, she was also celebrating her first wedding anniversary with husband Corey – a fellow US Marine. Celebration? Check!
After chatting with this very gregarious and extroverted group for a while, I asked them to describe their mom. James spoke up first, and then took a while to really think through his thoughts and choose his words. Ultimately, he narrowed it down into one simple sentence. “She’s a very concerned mom.” Of this, we have no doubt. Here at Dolphin Connection, we hope that a Florida Keys vacation at Hawks Cay Resort, complete with some play time swimming with the dolphins, provided Mrs. Auxier and her entire family the opportunity to relax, smile and connect. We were honored to be a part of your special visit and very touched by the love that you all clearly have for each other.
Dolphin Connection Blog - June 2012 June 1, 2012
Hawks Cay Resort was recently honored to host the Junior and Senior classes of New York’s Tottenville High School for a very special “Exploring the Possibili-seas”. The physical and occupational therapy students at Tottenville are frequently unable to participate in their school’s senior trip so every year they plan their own adventure, and this year they came here! With the enviable energy of a teenager, the group took advantage of just about all that Hawks Cay has to offer. According to Gail Benson, Tottenville’s Occupational Therapist, “Our students participated in the paddleboard races, hula hoop competitions, basketball, hockey, miniature golf and Wii sports. They also loved being in the hot tub and playing in the pool and just being able to swim at night in such warm water. They also loved being around the fire pit talking with each other.” What else did these Tottenville High School students do while they were here? They played with dolphins, of course!
The team at Dolphin Connection joyfully dedicated the entire day to this very special group of students, as well as their therapists, teachers and chaperones, in order to make sure that everyone had the chance to come face-to-face with our dolphins. We know that meeting dolphins is amazing for everyone, but for these students it provided the opportunity to “experience things they never thought possible because of their disabilities, including Autism and Cerebral Palsy as well as a myriad of other cognitive developmental delays.” According to Ms. Benson, “For most of their lives these students have been told they will never be able to do the things their age-group peers can. These trips have shown our students that this is myth, and we have literally seen their independence and self esteem blossom before our eyes.” Some students took the opportunity to meet the dolphins from the floating docks in the lagoons, while the rest of the students hopped into the water and met the dolphins in their own watery world. The students described the dolphins as “rubbery and soft”, and were “amazed about the [behaviors] they did.” The Tottenville staff said that their students, especially ones affected with autism, rarely interact with each other but did interact with the dolphins. “Experiences like this have fostered hope, social interaction, and independence in our students who need it most. Besides improving their quality of life during these trips, we know our students will learn lessons of confidence, self esteem, and leadership they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.”
Hearing from the staff about how important these experiences can be is moving, but hearing directly from the students is truly inspiring. Alyssa told us that “Dolphin Connection was a wonderful thing. I really like how we got to connect with the dolphins. My favorite part was when I got to feed the dolphins. Hawks Cay is a beautiful place and I had such a great time there.” Meagan said that for her, “the opportunity to meet dolphins was very meaningful. It was always my dream to go swimming with them and to interact with them the way we did.”
You know who may have loved the experience most of all? It was the dolphin trainers at Dolphin Connection. Every day we strive to inspire, but on this day the Tottenville High School students provided the inspiration. To them we offer a truly heartfelt thank you and a standing invitation to come back any time to enjoy a sunset, lounge under a Florida Keys sky and of course play with some very special dolphins.
Dolphin Connection Blog - May 2012 May 1, 2012
2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Under this act, all marine mammals, including whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, manatees, walruses, sea otters and polar bears, are protected in the United States. Here at Dolphin Connection, we teach our guests every day about the importance of this legislature and what it means for all of us who spend time on the water and who love these animals. If ever there was a time to celebrate the power that concerned citizens and a responsive government can have, this is it. So around the country this anniversary will be observed in a variety of creative and even unexpected ways. For instance, in Washington D.C. at the National Museum of Crime and Punishment, a temporary exhibit will run this summer entitled, “Crimes Against Marine Life” (http://www.crimemuseum.org/Crimes_Against_Marine_Life.html and http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/stories/2012/05/05_21_12_crime_against_marine_mammals.html). This exhibit will highlight violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act as well as crimes against other marine life and the law enforcements efforts to investigate these violations.
Part of the exhibit will focus on marine life affected by pollution in the oceans. Ghost nets, plastic bags, balloons, and other plastics and trash have an enormous and deadly impact on all marine life. While littering is always illegal, some communities have gone beyond that to ban balloon releases and the use of plastic bags by grocery stores or straws by restaurants. Regulations of some fishing practices and fishing equipment have also been implemented in an effort to minimize the damage to the ocean itself and to the animals who are frequently the unintended victims of the fishing practice.
Another area of focus will be shark conservation. Each year, an estimated 100 million sharks are killed, purely for their fins. The rest of the animal is dumped back into the sea as “trash”. This cruel and wasteful practice is illegal in 17 countries – including the United States – but it is still permitted in many others, and laws on import and export are weak. The populations of some species of shark have declined by as much as 99% and this reduction of a top predator weakens the entire food web. All animals, including dolphins, will suffer from the consequences of this tragic loss.
Of course, marine mammals will also be highlighted at this exhibit through stories, photos, and hands-on samplings of some of the illegal animal products that have been smuggled into or out of this country. But there’s another role that marine mammals play in discussions about conservation: people love them. We love dolphins; we’re guessing you do too. So while some folks’ heartstrings won’t be pulled by stories about sharks or fish, everyone wants to keep the oceans safe for dolphins and this is where Dolphin Connection can make a difference. Come and swim with the dolphins at Hawks Cay Resort and you’ll never be able to walk by a plastic bag on the beach, or let your fishing line fly off your boat, again. We guarantee it.
Now it’s your turn. If a museum dedicated to Crime and Punishment can find a way to honor the ocean, you can too. How will you celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Protection Act?
Dolphin Connection Blog - April 2012 April 2, 2012
On February 27 of this year, history was made. In fact, on February 27 of every year, history is made. It was on this date in 1953 that a dolphin named Nellie was born at Marineland in St. Augustine, Florida and every year on her birthday she breaks her own record for being the oldest dolphin in any oceanarium in the world. This year Nellie turned 59 years old and with the average lifespan of bottlenose dolphins in accredited zoos and aquariums being 25 – 30 years of age, and the average lifespan of wild bottlenose dolphins being half of that, 59 is an impressive age anywhere. For this reason, every year Nellie’s trainers and everyone who loves her celebrates her momentous birthday.
One decade after Nellie was born, and three thousand miles away, at Marineland’s sister facility in California, another animal was beginning her own long, record-setting career. Bubbles the pilot whale came to Marineland of the Pacific in the 1960s where she wowed guests for over 20 years. In 1987 Bubbles made her move to SeaWorld San Diego where she still continues to wow the guests today. At well over 40 years old (and over 3,000 pounds!), Bubbles is yet another example of the extreme longevity that we’re seeing in marine mammal facilities around the world.
The list goes on. Visit accredited zoos and aquariums internationally and you’ll find sea lions in their 20s, walruses in their 30s and killer whales in their 40s. In fact, here at Dolphin Connection with animals in their late 30s, we are proud of our very own thriving population of senior dolphins. Without a doubt, the lives of these geriatric animals benefit greatly from the quality of everything from the food to the veterinary care that they receive while under human care. But it isn’t just the science of animal care that’s improving and lengthening the lives of marine mammals. It’s also the emotion. Come on down to Dolphin Connection at Hawks Cay resort and watch the dedicated trainers with the dolphins. In a heartbeat you’ll feel the CARE in animal care. Under a beautiful Florida Keys sunset, we raise our hats to Nellie, Bubbles and to all the senior animals being cared for in facilities around the world. Thank you for all we’ve learned from you and with you.
Dolphin Connection Blog - March 2012 March 1, 2012
When you’re a fifth grader in Wisconsin, things like sunshine, palm trees, dolphins and iguanas are probably not what you’d expect to see in February. But a group of students in Mr. Gaudio’s class at Frank Elementary School in Kenosha, Wisconsin were able to see all of these things last month, thanks to the wonders of modern technology.
For kids in Wisconsin who’ve never been to the beach, it may be tricky for them to really picture the sparkle of sunlight on a blue ocean or appreciate the way a pelican glides over the surface of the water, riding the air currents. For teachers in Wisconsin, it can be practically impossible to inspire marine conservation in these children when the sea seems a million miles away and their ability to have an impact on it – for good or for bad – feels so unlikely. Inspiring Conservation is what we do here at Dolphin Connection, so when Mr. Gaudio’s class began studying the oceans, we jumped at the opportunity to be involved. But how could we reach these students when Wisconsin is 1,500 miles away? While we couldn’t literally bring them to the Florida Keys, we could certainly do it virtually via distance learning, so as a classroom full of students announced that it was 1° in Kenosha, their message traveled through the wireless internet and arrived to us loud and clear on our computer at Hawks Cay Resort. Wearing shorts and t-shirts, we sent back our 75° weather forecast and the game was on! From that point forward, the students couldn’t wait to hear about this world so far away, where dolphins jump and where the sun seems to shine permanently. We began with a discussion about careers with dolphins, moved on to some personal stories about the individual dolphins who live at Dolphin Connection, and finished with a conversation about the science of dolphin training. After this presentation, we opened up the floor to questions, as one-by-one the students approached the web cam, notebooks in hand. “What’s your favorite part of your job?” “How did you become a dolphin trainer?” “Have you ever seen a baby dolphin being born?” The questions kept on coming, and as we answered we could see that behind the students other teachers and even the Frank Elementary School principal walked into the classroom to get a glimpse of the Florida sunshine, the dolphins, some pelicans, and even an iguana through the computer.
As the class came to a close, these students who admittedly have a hard time staying focused were shining examples of good behavior. Was it the cool technology being used or was it the beautiful dolphins at Dolphin Connection who are sometimes the best teachers of all? Whatever it was that brought such success into the classroom on this day, also brought chills to everyone involved. Trainers, teachers and parents all remarked afterward that this was something that we should do again, and it wasn’t just the students who benefitted. While we try our best not to take the beauty that surrounds us for granted, sometimes it takes seeing it through someone else’s eyes to make us appreciate what we have. For this, we send a huge thank you to the students of Mr. Gaudio’s fifth grade class at Frank Elementary in Kenosha, Wisconsin. We hope to see you all again. And we hope your weather warms up soon!
If you are a teacher or know a teacher who would like to participate in a virtual class at Dolphin Connection, please give us a call. As it turns out, you don’t have to be in the Florida Keys to be inspired by our dolphin family!
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!☺