Dolphin Connection Blog
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!
Dolphin Connection Blog - February 2010 February 5, 2010
January was a busy month for us here at The Dolphin Connection! We hosted the annual meeting of the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin Breeding Consortium, of which we are a founding member. The Consortium is a partnership of skilled marine mammal specialists from zoos and aquariums all across the United States who work closely together to provide a sustainable and genetically-sound population of dolphins. Those in attendance included veterinarians and other professionals from the Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo; Disney’s Epcot Living Seas; National Aquarium in Baltimore; Minnesota Zoo; Indianapolis Zoo and Texas State Aquarium, as well, of course, The Dolphin Connection. Discussions provided updates on ongoing advances in dolphin husbandry, research and breeding, including much discussion about the group’s participation in artificial insemination techniques, which allows for pregnancies to occur without having to move or relocate dolphins. Artificial insemination is especially important to us here at The Dolphin Connection, where we are currently providing homes to several old, retired male dolphins, whose contributions to a frozen zoo will allow them to continue to produce healthy babies for many generations to come! Another less exciting, but important, part of the meeting was an inspection of our facilities, procedures, management, and programs by the members in attendance. This peer review provides vital feedback, suggestions for areas of improvement, and is a great catalyst for the sharing and exchange of information between facilities. The way we see it, this translates to the best care possible for our dolphin family! We are so grateful for our partnership with the Consortium facilities, are proud of the high standards of care we collectively and voluntarily provide to our dolphins on a daily basis, and are honored to be establishing excellence for the future. It is our hope that the hard work and dedication that takes place behind the scenes is absolutely clear when you come to the Keys to meet our unbelievable staff and animals!
Dolphin Connection Blog - December 2009 December 16, 2009
Fall in the Florida Keys may not be marked by cooling temperatures, changing leaves or snow storms, but the transition is still obvious. As summer vacations end and children return to school, professional conference season begins for those of us in the zoological field. This is a much-anticipated time of year when we gather with colleagues, attend seminars and conferences, share our knowledge and learn, learn, learn!
The International Marine Animal Trainer’s Association (IMATA) conference is always the highlight of our fall season. It’s so popular that everyone on the Dolphin Connection staff wants to attend…but someone has to stay home to take care of the dolphins. (If you ask them, the staff will tell you that 2005 was their favorite year, because we hosted the IMATA conference at Hawks Cay, allowing them all to attend :))
Three of our senior staff members were able to attend this year’s conference hosted by the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. The Georgia Aquarium is the largest in the world and has the distinction of housing the only whale sharks in the country – four of them to be exact. The whale shark, scientific name Rhincodon typus, is a slow moving filter feeding shark that is the largest living fish species, growing to over 40 feet in length and weighing almost 47,000 pounds! Now THAT’S a big shark! In the wild, they are found in tropical oceans where they survive on tiny microscopic plants and animals called plankton. Thanks to the incredible generosity of the Georgia Aquarium, our trainers were able to experience a private feeding session with these behemoths. From small zodiac boats, the aquarists use marine mammal training techniques to train and feed the sharks, housed in Ocean Voyager, an incredible 6-million gallon habitat that the sharks share with an abundance of fishy friends. And if you think that was a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, wait till you hear that our staff actually spent an afternoon scuba diving in Ocean Voyager with the sharks! How’s that for professional development!?! If you’re ever in the Atlanta area, please stop in and visit our friends at the Georgia Aquarium, and sign up to dive with the whale sharks yourself – we promise you won’t be disappointed!
Preparations to attend the IMATA conference began almost a year ago. Our staff was involved with the writing and presentation of three papers this year – I think that’s a record number for us. Our first paper focused on advancements in our educational offerings at Dolphin Connection, including creative strategies for expanding educational opportunities in four key areas – improving public programs by partnering with like-minded conservation organizations, increasing outreach to our community through free science labs in area schools, contributing to the conservation of wild marine mammals by lending our knowledge and expertise to existing wild research programs, and improving opportunities for our own staff development. Dolphin Connection supervisor, Tracy Gaudio-Backhaus, presented this paper…her first one ever! Make no mistake, this is a nerve racking experience that is not for the faint of heart, but she pulled it off like a pro – GREAT job Tracy!
For our second paper, our animal training team partnered with their colleagues at SeaWorld Florida in Orlando to present a paper on the multiple uses of unflavored gelatin with marine mammals. That’s right – gelatin! The paper documented the ten-year history of our facilities working together to introduce something fun, new, and groundbreaking to the art of keeping of marine mammals. Gelatin use began at SeaWorld as an enjoyable and entertaining toy to be played with. It has enriched the lives of many whales and dolphins over the years. But then our veterinarians got to thinking…gelatin is 80% water and could be a great way to get fluids to a dolphin that might need them. So they asked, “Can you teach dolphins to eat unflavored gelatin?” and the trainers answered, “Yes!” Since then we have been utilizing gelatin in a variety of ways – just for fun, for additional fluids, and even for hiding vitamins or medications. The presentation of this paper created an incredible amount of discussion and interest among folks in the marine mammal training field and is already slated for publication in 2010. It makes us feel proud to contribute something of value to our occupation, especially when it has the potential to make a positive impact in the lives of whales and dolphins in zoos and aquariums around the world!
Our third paper found one of our owners, Cheryl Messinger, acting in her role as IMATA Historian. Each year Cheryl works with various marine mammal facilities to chronicle the origins of their whale and dolphin training programs. This year she worked with our colleagues and neighbors close to home, detailing the early history of marine mammal training in the Florida Keys. As always, it was an interesting and informative look back at our origin.
Although the week inevitably came to an end and the conference came to an eventual close, it didn’t really end there. Our trainers returned home to Duck Key inspired by new knowledge, new skills, new tools and new ideas which they shared with their eager co-workers. But more importantly, this new inspiration has already sparked creativity that will benefit our beloved dolphins, and, for us, there is no greater reward than that!