When we were in Florida last month, I got to fulfill a dream nearly 30 years in the making — and cross an item off the top of my bucket list.
I swam with dolphins.
My dolphin experience was a 40th birthday present from my parents, who heard me go on and on about dolphins when I was 13 years old.
You might say I had a slight dolphin obsession at the time. I wore a silver necklace with a dolphin and crystal charm everyday, often paired with my “Save the Dolphins” Greenpeace T-shirt. I read about dolphins, I had dolphin pictures in my room.
I don’t know what it was about dolphins that intrigued and fascinated me so much during those early teen years. Perhaps it was their grace, their intelligence, their beauty. As I got older my obsession waned a bit, but I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for dolphins…and harbored a dream of someday swimming and interacting with them.
And thanks to my parents, that dream came true.
However, I wanted to be mindful of the facility or organization I went to for my dolphin experience. I refused to go anywhere that was purely a tourist attraction — think an aquatic petting zoo or circus. Nor would I consider those “swim with wild dolphins” where you go out on the ocean in a boat in hopes of interacting with dolphins in their natural environment, which just felt wrong.
And then I came across the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys, not more than 20 minutes from where we were staying in the town of Marathon in the Lower Keys, and I knew I found my place.
Because while the DRC offers various dolphin experiences, they are — at their core — a research organization and nonprofit organization. They rescue and rehabilitate dolphins (both bottlenose and Atlantic spotted, along with sea lions) that cannot be released back into the wild, giving them a “forever home” in their 90,000-square-foot facility of saltwater lagoons.
They are also learning more about these creatures, focusing on marine mammal cognition, behavior and husbandry, contributing to the scientific knowledge of dolphins and of other animals. (Check out this article from a few years back in USA Today). And they provide a variety of educational programs that allow the public a chance to learn firsthand about the dolphin world.
And I knew I had found my match.
I signed up for the Dolphin Encounter, a 20-25 minute program that gets you up close and personal with dolphins–including a dorsal pull. I love how the Center rotates the dolphins for the various programs, and only animals that choose to be involved will participate in the in-water and dock programs; they aren’t forced or coerced.
I was assigned to a group with 4 other people…and I meet our dolphin, Tursi. Turns out Tursi has quite the famous family tree: she is the daughter of two “Flipper” dolphins who starred in the original movies. She is also the Center’s resident “Super Mom,” raising her kids, serving as a surrogate mom to others, and helping train new trainers.
For the next 25 minutes, our trainer had us shake “hands” (or fins), give kisses, and even go along for a dorsal pull in the lagoon.
But my favorite part was having a splash fight with Tursi!
Honestly, the whole thing really was dream come true — both for my 40-year-old self, and for that 12-year-old dolphin-obsessed tween I once had been. After every encounter with Tursi, I’d look back at the dock at my kids and they’d be grinning or giving me a thumbs up.
Once I (reluctantly) bid farewell to Tursi, I rinsed off and changed, and spent the next hour or so enjoying the other features of the Dolphin Resource Center.
We walked around the docks saying hello to some of the other 20+ dolphins …
…and the kids even got to meet a dolphin, the beautiful Marina.
We paid a visit to the resident California sea lions, where I took an instant liking to Karen, a retired show-girl who performed at Universal Studios for many years and is now blind (apparently common for older sea lions) and living out her golden years at the DRC.
We squawked at some exotic birds in the Aviary, including macaws and a cockatoos — all birds that the DRC adopted because their owners could no longer provide their care.
We walked through the serene Veterans Garden, a project that came about back in the late 1990s when several Vietnam veterans suffering with PTSD participated in a program that DRC designed for them.
In fact, while we were at the DRC, we got to see one of their amazing Wounded Warrior Programs in action, and I learned how incredibly therapeutic interacting with dolphins can be for veterans dealing with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries .
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to check out the Splash Pad (and the kids didn’t have their swimsuits) but I wish we had because it looked like so much fun!
In the end, I could have asked for a more perfect day, and I’m so happy I got to fulfill this dream at such a special place.
Now, what else do I have on my bucket list??
Disclaimer: I paid (or, technically my parents paid!) for my dolphin experience, although my family received complimentary admission to the DRC.