Dolphin Research Center, Crane Point Epitomize New Style of Travel

By Karen Rubin

Theresa helps care for her grandchild, Ras; Ras’ aunt, Alita, can lactate spontaneously and helps nurse her. The ladies help each other during a delivery, acting as midwife, even cutting the umbilical cord; later, they help each other with babysitting. Santini helped raise her older sister’s two children.

This might not seem unusual for people, but these are some of the astonishing behaviors of dolphins that have been studied at the Dolphin Research Center.

Located in Marathon, in the middle section of the 1,700-island archipelago of the Florida Keys, the Dolphin Research Center seems as far as one can get from the image of laid-back hedonism associated with Key West, at the southern tip.

But our visit, centered on the middle and upper portions of the Florida Keys, had a different focus – how we are interconnected as natural creatures, and connected to those who came before and what they have left for us.

Memorable encounter: a little girl interacts with a dolphin at the Dolphin Research Center (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

We are among the growing numbers of “ecotourists” who want to discover, experience first hand, and leave a locality and the planet better for our being there. What we learn at places like the Dolphin Research Center, Crane Point preserve just down the road, and Theater of the Sea in Islamorada changes our view and our behavior and we bring this back to our communities.

What is more, the money we spend helps support the worthy endeavors. This is called sustainable tourism – a style of travel that respects the natural and cultural environment that benefits the local community as much as it enriches us personally – and like the planet we live on, depends on symbiotic ecology.

And we don’t even have to trek great distances, or endure hardship – such adventures can be as close as a car ride away, in this case, from our comfortable lodgings at Hawks Cay Resort.

Precursors to the Dolphin Research Center were the first to keep dolphins in captivity, 50 years ago, train them and demonstrate their intelligence, with an aim to raising consciousness about the damage humans were doing to marine mammals.

Indeed, worldwide consciousness was raised because of Flipper.

Flipper was actually based on Milton Santini, a local fisherman who lived at this site, and his relationship with a dolphin he captured, Mitzi. He formed Santini’s Porpoise School, in 1956, and in 1963, Mitzi, starred in the original pilot movie Flipper, along with five of Santini’s other dolphins.

When Mitzi passed away in 1972 (her final resting place and monument can be seen on the property), a broken-hearted Santini sold out to an entertainment conglomerate, which operated the facility until 1977 as a dolphin show known as Flipper’s Sea School.

Then, in 1977, whale conservationist Jean Paul Fortom-Gouin purchased the facility and renamed it Institute for Delphinid Research. His goal was to prove that dolphins were highly intelligent, an argument to convince the world to stop hunting whales. He closed the facility to the pubic while he conducted research on dolphins’ language and reasoning skills. His work was influential in persuading the International Whaling Commission and its member countries to limit, and in some cases stop, hunting whales, a close cousin of the dolphin.

When the International Whaling Commission adopted a voluntary whaling moratorium in 1983. Fortom-Gouin offered the business and dolphins to his general manager and head trainer, Jayne Shannon-Rodriguez and Mandy Rodriguez. They accepted the challenge and founded Dolphin Research Center.

They opened the Dolphin Research Center in 1984 with an aim to conduct research but also open the facility to the public to further education. It is one of the few such facilities that maintains separate research and public display permits.

This is not like any other dolphin experience I have encountered. It is not like Seaworld in Orlando or even Theatre of the Sea in Islamorada where we see a fantastic dolphin show. This is a true research center that allows casual visitors like ourselves to witness just how wondrous dolphins are. You cannot help but become a lot more respectful of these marine mammals and humble, and appreciate them as evolutionary relatives.

What distinguishes the Dolphin Research Center is that there are serious, scientific studies underway to determine how dolphins think, learn, and communicate as opposed to training them to do tricks and perform.

At Dolphin Research Center, visitors have lots of opportunities to interact with dolphin; here, a group learns how to signal the dolphin to spin (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

The center was the first to publish a scientific study that demonstrated that dolphins can differentiate between “more” and “less” using black boards.

“We are not saying they are counting, but they are making judgments based on quantity, such as when hunting for fish,” says Mary Stella, the center’s media coordinator.

The dolphins are also studied in a way that is both more intensive and less intrusive than other places. They are seen as distinct individuals with distinct personalities. They call it “dolphinality” (the scientists avoid attaching human qualities to the dolphin behaviors).

Molly, for example, likes to collect scarves. On a signal to go “shopping,” most dolphin will bring up seaweed or a rock; Molly goes to her underwater “closet” and brings up one of her brightly colored scarves, holding it out for us to see.

“She has a whole closet full and takes them out when she wants to play and wear,” says Mary, who first visited the center in the 1960s when she was six, became a volunteer, a member donor since 1989, and six years ago gave up an important public relations position in New Jersey to come here to work. She knows the dolphins personally.

Through observation, she says, “We think we see different mothering styles,” even treating first and second calves differently.

When Pax, now 10 years old, was young, he was nursing and some fishing line floated in and got stuck so he couldn’t nurse. “Tursi was a great mom. She communicated that there was a problem by stopping eating and the trainers found the line.”

Yes there are entertaining shows – incredible displays of learned behaviors and physical abilities – but it is in the context of training and to spread the gospel to appreciate these incredible creatures.

The shows are really continuations of the training process – each of the behaviors performed is logged in a journal.

Visitors have many opportunities to interact with dolphins and participate in the programs to a much greater extent than in more traditional shows and even dolphin encounter programs (the Hawk’s Cay Resort, literally across the street, has its own dolphin encounter program).

The popular Dolphin Encounter program is a playful, structured, interactive program, that starts with a workshop where the trainer explains what to expect and shows basic hand signals so that you can ask the dolphins for a variety of interactive behaviors during your session, followed by 20 minutes of structured time in the water. There are two options: Deep Water Dolphin Encounter includes the energetic dorsal pull; Shallow Water Encounter is open to all ages with no language requirement. ($180 per person and includes a full day admission, educational materials and a certificate; advance reservations are required since program availability is limited, 305-289-0002).

Showing their "dolphinality" with the Paint with a Dolphin program at Dolphin Research Center (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

For Play with a Dolphin ($50, plus admission), you get a short orientation with a trainer about dolphin behavior and the importance of play in a dolphin’s daily life, then go down on the dock to meet a dolphin face to face; pick a toy and participate in one of the dolphin’s playtime sessions. This is great for people who can’t swim or do not swim well, or can’t speak English (you have to be able to speak English to participate in Encounter).

A popular program is Paint With a Dolphin – where the dolphin holds a paintbrush, chooses one of the nontoxic paints, and spins to make designs. The dolphins have their different styles – polka dots and broad strokes ($55).

A new DolphinDip program lets you step down onto the submerged platform and greet your new gray-faced friend with a backrub and a flippershake. Dance, spin, splash – then watch the dolphin imitate you! You learn how to give signals like a trainer. Great for families, Dolphin Dip is a group activity that includes approximately 20-25 minutes of in-water time ($100 for ages 4 and up includes admission; free for children under the age of 3, who must be held by a parent or guardian).

More intensive programs are also available.

For Trainer for a Day, you spend an entire day paired with a trainer learning about animal training techniques and how they are used them with the DRC pod; help prepare meals in the Fish House and assist during various behavioral sessions. You also get to take part in a DolphinDip, the popular wade-in interactive program (you have to be at least 13; $650).

Researcher for a Day ($500) lets you become part of the research team, taking part in projects to explore the intelligence of the dolphins and sea lions. You learn how the dolphins are trained to understand the tasks and help collect data.

Programs were all sold out the day we arrived, so reservations are essential.

You are definitely going to want photos, and there was a photographer right there, with wireless, so the photos were ready when you were ready to leave.

In addition to watching various shows in the lagoons and engaging in the interactive programs, there are presentations in the Dolphin Theatre, such as All About Babies, which shows how dolphins give birth to live young underwater and how they raise their babies; and Secret Lives of Dolphins, which discusses the mysteries of their social structure and natural behaviors.

Another program, Dolphin Conversations, lets you eavesdrop on dolphin communication below the water’s surface through a hydrophone, and you can learn more about echolocation and how the dolphin’s skull structure facilitates this ability.

In addition, the center offers internationally acclaimed, college-accredited, week-long DolphinLab programs: All About Dolphins provides a week-long experience filled with dolphin interactions and educational and fun activities, demonstrations and workshops; DolphinLab Career Focused Series emphasizes academics, along with dolphin interactions, with three different week-long courses that delve deeply into Cognitive and Behavioral Marine Mammal Research, Marine Mammal Care and Training, and Advanced Marine Mammal Training and Enrichment.

There are also DolphinCamps for kids 10-14 and Teen Dolphin Lab (15-17).

These programs bring you up close and personal with these amazing creatures.

Dolphin enjoy interacting with visitors at Dolphin Research Center (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

All 19 dolphin have been born in human care – 13 calves have been born at the Center, several the progeny of the original Flipper dolphins; six were born elsewhere. Theresa, who was born in the 1960s, was a Navy dolphin who went AWOL; she had a hard life, in a traveling show, until coming to the center in 1996.

“Once they are here, we promise them a home for life; we don’t trade,” Mary says.

What is interesting to see is that the dolphins, who can live into their 50’s (Theresa, the oldest, is in her mid-50s), appear to be acquiring behaviors younger and younger. Mary points to the progress that nine-month old Ras has made. “Ras is already learning behaviors because she is so interested.”

Tanner, born at DRC in March 2002, was the youngest baby dolphin to start target pole training at just three weeks old.

With the third generation of dolphin offspring at DRC, you begin to wonder if successive generations being bred with such intellectual stimulation will spark an evolutionary change in their cognitive development.

After you see two dolphins catch and retrieve a basketball (Sandy came from New England with the basketball behavior), you wonder how long it will take in the evolutionary process for them to look at each other and say, “Want to play?” and start throwing and catching to each other or making up their own game. After all, they already have devised a game passing seaweed to each other.

Dolphins make sounds through their blowhole – 32 air sacs can manipulate sounds. Some have learned to make sounds by imitating the sounds we make – one innovated a sound like a giggle – it wasn’t trained, he learned it on his own, Mary says. Also, the dolphins sometimes invent their own chatter. The dolphins’ use of clicks and whistles as language, though, is a code that hasn’t been broken.

For example, the dolphins like to blow bubbles, and one got the idea to swim through it; they play with seaweed, passing it to each other. This is demonstration of cognitive thought process.

“The trainers will sometimes sit back, and that’s the sign to ‘innovate and do what they want – and the dolphin will ad lib,” Mary says.

When the dolphin does a behavior that the trainer will want the dolphin to do again, the trainer will create a signal. But what is interesting is a former trainer can come back, and even though the same signal has been used by another trainer for a different behavior, the dolphin will remember that trainer’s use of the signal.

The behaviors that are displayed during the shows are stimulating to the dolphin – they actually enjoy it, particularly learning a new behavior, and participate voluntarily (no one forces them to do anything). The dolphins love attention and react to the audience applause and like to mug for the cameras.

“Food is a primary reinforcement, but not the only reward”‘ Mary says. “They love the attention, the back rubs.”

The Dolphin Research Center could easily remain a research institution, but the public programs are important to the mission – both to raise money to support the research and care of the dolphins, and perhaps even more importantly, to educate public.

Dolphins demonstrate their ability to leap - if they wanted to, they could leap over the fence Center (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

“The more people learn about animals like dolphins, it is human nature to care about them – and the environment, and what happens to oceans.

Mary points to instances where people left here and made changes – like a high school class that visited in the 1980s that went back and convinced their school district to stop selling tuna that was not dolphin-safe. “We had small part in public pressure for dolphin-safe tuna fishing,” she said.

I think we spent four hours there – the time flew by. You could easily spend an entire day, there was so much to see (open daily, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. except major holidays; $19.50/adults, $16.50/seniors, $13.50/children 4-12; a discount admission coupon may be downloaded from the website.)

For information about Volunteer or Intern programs: Dolphin Research Center Volunteer Resources (

Dolphin Research Center, 58901 Overseas Highway, Grassy Key, FL 33050-6019, 305-289-0002 (program reservations), 305-289-1121 (offices),

Crane Point

Probably no place combines the elements of ecotourism – preservation of natural habitat and cultural heritage – as well as Crane Point, a 64-acre nature center with amazing trails, Natural History museum, children’s museum and historically significant houses.

Walking along its trails, you feel small compared to the lush foliage. You come upon important natural and cultural features, literally discovering them. You come to realize that this is one of the most important archeological sites in all the Keys. It also contains the last virgin palm hammock in the United States.

Crane Point is named for Francis and Mary Crane, a Massachusetts couple who purchased it in 1949. They were ardent conservationists and horticulturists who worked to preserve the hammock and enhance it with flowering exotic trees and shrubs.

At that time approximately 600 people lived in the middle keys along with a profusion of mosquitoes. The Cranes built a causeway to Big Rachel Key where they built their home, the first modern house in the area. Today it houses the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary offices, and is being restored for public visits.

The Crane family retained the property until the late 1970’s. Then it went through several owners and was about to be taken over for commercial development when it was purchased for preservation by the Florida Keys Land and Sea Trust in 1989.

The Adderley House, at Crane Point, is the oldest house in the Florida Keys, outside Key West (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Crane Point harbors evidence of human use dating back well over 700 years, to the Calusa Indians. The first documented permanent settlers to this particular property were George and Olivia Adderley, who lived here from 1902 until 1949.

You walk along the nature trail through the hammock, and come upon the Adderley house – as if discovering it. This is an extremely moving experience – the house sits vacant, quiet, yet as you wander through it, you begin to visualize their life.

Their story begins in the 1890’s when they sailed from the Bahamas to the Keys. They lived in the upper Keys for several years and subsequently came to Key Vaca where they purchased 32 acres in the area now known as Crane Point.

The home that George built himself in 1902 is made of Tabby, a concrete-like material made of burned conch and other shells, and is the oldest house in the Keys outside of Key West. George worked as a turtler, sponger and made charcoal out of buttonwood.

I continue my exploration. I come to a tropical shoreline formed by red, white and black Mangrove trees – island builders that protect the shore form a protective line, absorbing wind and wave energy that would otherwise cause damage and gradual erosion.

Further on is the Marathon Wild Bird Center which harbors birds that have been harmed, possibly by human activity. There is a whole section for cat-attack patients.

You may well see a surgical procedure in the bird hospital.

Soon, you come to the Crane house. You can see why the Cranes chose this spot: there is a spectacular view of Florida Bay at the far end of the trail.

Marathon Kayaks offers two-hour kayaking trips from here, including moonlight trips. Eventually, the preserve may also offering snorkeling.

The trail continues and you pass by Rachel Key, a bird rookery, on your way back to the museums.

Taking the Palm Trail back, you become aware of dragonflies and ibises at the freshwater pond and learn about some of the 160 species of native plants in the hammock from the interpretive signage along the way.

The Museum of Natural History has superb displays: a 600 year-old dugout canoe, remnants of pirate ships and a simulated coral reef cave (they are literally growing coral). Artifacts make very real the stories of the native Keys inhabitants, the early explorers, the pioneers and developers of the “Railroad that Died at Sea” after the devastating hurricane of 1935. You can see the Bellarmine jug (circa 1580), a shipwreck artifact that was found in 1980 in almost perfect condition in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida Keys.

Inside the Adderley House, at Crane Point, you can imagine what life was like for the early settlers (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

There are displays of animals native to the Keys including turtles, snails, snakes and whales. The seabird and water diorama will familiarize you to what you might see as you view Florida Bay at the waters edge of Crane Point

Kids can relive the swashbuckling adventures of Keys Pirates in the Children’s Activity Center, located on the deck outside Orientation Theatre, climb aboard a 17th century galleon, “Los Ninos de Los Cayos,” an interactive vessel complete with pirate clothes and treasure.

All ages will enjoy examining crabs, starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, conchs and other sea creatures in the touch tanks located on both sides of the deck.

There is also a relatively new, well produced orientation film in a small theater.

Executive Director Keith Douglass has wonderful plans for Crane Point – including building a Native American fishing village here – and has already introduced scores of special events and new activities.

There are monthly star-gazing programs with David Heeschen, a Harvard-trained astronomer (he studied with Carl Sagan) and former director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, as well as bird watching walks, and science classes for kids. Check the website for the calendar.

Crane Point, Museum, Nature Center, & Historic House, Mile Marker 50.5, Bayside. 5550 Overseas Hwy. Marathon, Florida (305) 743.9100 (open daily; $7.50/A, $6/seniors, $4/students, under 6 free; allocate 2-4 hours), 305-743-9100,

Marathon is located in the middle of the Florida Keys, about three hours south of Boynton Beach; we thoroughly enjoyed our stay at the Hawk’s Cay Resort, one of the most complete resorts in the Keys, which is undergoing a renovation and due to reopen this spring; 305-743-7000, 8000-432-2242,

For more information, contact Florida Keys and Key West, 305-296-1552, 800-FLA KEYS,

Thursday, 14 February, 2008

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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