Cayo and Gypsi and the Dolphin Research Center

In February of 1997, Terry and I took Jason and Justin on our first family vacation. The trip involved stops in Orlando and the Florida Keys. Terry was aware that I had participated in a dolphin swim in 1994, and wanted to know if that was something we could do with the boys. Some research into the options available eventually led us to the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key. Why the DRC? Simple… Justin was too young for any other place offering such programs.

How funny is it then that almost a dozen years later, Ellen (of Ellen and Richard... this web site’s famous couple from numerous travel guides) would have a friend working at the DRC? Turns out… very funny.

Of all of our adventures on the 2009 trip to South Florida, this was the one that really planned itself. We were going to meet up with Nancy and her husband. (Norm!) We were going to visit the Dolphin Research Center. And we were going to participate in one (or several) of their programs. The only question was what to ultimately pick.

Do you follow this web site? If so, you might know that Richard was providing us with an incredible amount of assistance in setting up a new bathroom. He was showing up on weeknights to check out potential problems. (Most of which didn’t exist. Amazing how when the plumber shows up, the pipe no longer drips, isn’t it?) So Terry and I… sneaky creeps that we are… actually were able to contact Nancy and the DRC without Ellen and Richard knowing. Oh yes… we were all going to be swimming with the dolphins.

So… here it is… a bit about the Dolphin Research Center. It isn’t flashy, it’s just fantastic. And you will not find a friendlier group of people any place at any time.

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Every so often the phrase “once in a lifetime” gets used, and I’m not so sure that it works. Here’s a good example…

On our drive to the DRC, we left Key West and saw a waterspout over the ocean. I have always been fascinated by storms like hurricanes and tornados… always wanted to see a tornado in person, and honestly believed I never would.

For me, the waterspout is likely to have been a once-in-a-lifetime moment. And yet for people living around Florida for any decent length of time… especially the Keys… seeing waterspouts could be a common occurrence.

Back in 1994, when I first had the opportunity to swim with a dolphin, I honestly believed it was a once-in-a-lifetime. Then in 1997, Terry and I brought the boys to the DRC… where we were introduced to Santini and Aleta. Later that same year, on our honeymoon, Terry and I had a chance to swim with dolphins again. And here we are in 2009… once more having the opportunity to take part in a simply thrilling and great adventure.

So maybe it’s not once-in-a-lifetime… maybe some of it is perspective united with opportunity… but the reality is, this is the kind of experience that should be placed right at the top of any must-do lists.

We arrive at the DRC and prepare for our adventure. A quick walk around the grounds after we check in, and then we go to change before our introductory workshop (where the rules and expectations are delivered to us). We move along to our lagoon, and there they are…

Cayo and Gypsi.

Basically, the actual encounter is broken down into three parts. Now… that isn’t quite accurate… but it does kind of sum up the session.

It begins with introductions to the dolphins. During our encounter, we walked onto a landing next to the lagoon and got in the water. Cayo and Gypsi swam by, and then came closer to give us a chance to pet them.

The second segment featured a personal interaction with the dolphins. The high-light of this was leaving the platform to swim slightly into the lagoon, outstretching our hands so the dolphins could swim past and pick us up, getting a dorsal pull around a portion of the lagoon, and then being returned near the platform.

The last portion made trainers out of us, with each participant stepping forward and giving a command to the dolphins. (And while you would love to see the dolphins try everything, it is amazing how many people want to have a splash-fight. I’m sure most people feel exactly the way I did… “Please, please, please all you others pick the less cool stuff because I really do want to see them perform all the things we’re being offered as options, but I’m taking the splash-fight because it’s got to be the most fun.”)

The time in the water is impossible to truly measure… since it races by at a blistering pace with countless smiles.

The staff is beyond fantastic. Sure, it’s easy to say that working near the water all day and playing with dolphins must be cool… and the staff I spoke with assure me that it is… but we are talking about beautiful, powerful creatures interacting with astonished, fascinated tourists. For each of these people to be so pleasant, friendly and professional is a true credit to them and the DRC.

I hope you’ll find the time to get to the DRC… and hopefully even join Terry and I in experiencing once-in-a-lifetime more than once.

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If you go…

Look… I’m going to recommend the Dolphin Encounter. And that recommendation involves one of the more expensive experiences the Dolphin Research Center offers. It also involves making an almost mandatory reservation. So don’t mess around… get to their web site… look over the available packages and options… and make your plans.

If your plans, such as an encounter, end up as something that allows for reservations… make them. Make them as soon as possible. And if you can’t plan in advance and make reservations, and what you are considering is something that they claim you must act on the day of… follow through with everything they tell you to do. Call back… be there first thing in the morning… do anything it takes to make it happen.

Simply put, your day with the dolphin… whether meeting one up close for a few minutes, playing with one in a group swim, or experiencing any of the other exciting and fun options… is a great day with a real dolphin. As in… an amazing experience that doesn’t happen for most of us every day with a real dolphin. That means other people will be calling or will be there, and they will be looking to set up their plans. So don’t hesitate.

Let’s move on…

DRC is located at mile marker 59 along US 1. There are several places nearby to eat and relax, and plenty of things to do in the Florida Keys to make this the central feature of an amazing extended vacation in the area.

Think about pictures. For instance… is there someone in your group that won’t go in the water? The DRC offers professional pictures for purchase, which is awesome. But video? Nope. Not that I know of. So don’t be afraid to ask what you can do to allow the extra… and dry… set of hands to get involved.

Think about clothing and sunscreen and glasses… and also where you’re going to be. You may be making plans that mean you’ll get wet. Make sure what you’re wearing… what you’re bringing… and everything else involved is right for you, the animals, and a day in the sun.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at