A Day at the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys

The Dolphin Research Center is a non-profit research facility located in Grassy Key at mile marker 59, an hour north of Key West.  There are several “swim with the dolphin” facilities in the Keys but the Dolphin Research Center is unique. It’s a not-for-profit research center that’s about interacting with the dolphins through various hands-on experiences.

Dolphin Discover Center

The dolphins almost look like they are chatting with visitors

A “Big” Keys Welcome

The Florida Keys are a quirky place – in a good way.  Once you leave Miami, the landscape, the attractions and the animals are unique.  One of my favorite quirks is the large landmark signs that announce attractions.  Look for house-size conch shells and turtles and at the Dolphin Research Center — it’s a dolphin of course.  It’s easy to put the kids in charge of directions when the road signs are this big.

No Behind-the-Scenes

All the action is out in the open at the Dolphin Research Center so families don’t need to worry about getting behind -the-scenes to see the action.  While interactive programs are only for reserved guests, there is always an audience.

The dolphins that are not in programs are easily accessible in their pens, swimming around and playing with toys.  There’s almost always a staff member around to tell you what’s going on.  We saw a pregnant dolphin mom given water by the staff and learned that dolphins do not have a gag reflex, so the tube of water down her throat doesn’t bother her at all.

Painting with Dolphins at Dolphin Discovery Center

The dolphins know just what colors little girls like for their t-shirts

How to Choose an Experience

While there are plenty of things to do here without paying for an interactive program, my kids were disappointed that we did not participate in one. In retrospect I wish I had as it makes the visit more memorable.

Most visitors do sign up for an program.  There are two types of dolphin interaction programs:

In the water with the dolphins. Advance reservations usually required.

Out of water, on a platform. Walk-in only.  Arrive early for best availability.

We saw families doing all of the programs and saw firsthand that the kids that were painting a t-shirt with the dolphins or sitting on a platform throwing toys for them to play with were equally as happy as those that were in the water swimming with the dolphins.  There is an experience for every budget.

Iguana at Dolphin Discovery Center

This iguana caught our attention but we think he was looking for someone else

Other Animals Live Here Too

These tree climbing iguanas are all over in the Keys and this guy was letting everyone know that the dolphins aren’t the only exciting animals here.  These preening iguanas are mesmerizing for kids and as we found out at our hotel pool – they can swim too!

There are California sea lions here as well lazing around, getting some sun just like the rest of the tourists.

Additional Activities

If you are waiting for your program to begin or want to take advantage of all that’s here, pack a swimsuit, towel and snacks.  There are scavenger hunts, touch and feel exhibits and more exciting -the new water splash area.  It wasn’t working the day we were there but this looks like a lot of fun, especially on a hot day.  The gift shop here is full of educational souvenirs.

Kristi received two complimentary admissions to the Dolphin Research Center. All opinion are her own. Photos by Kristi Marcelle

Relevant Links:

Ciao Bambino recommended Florida family hotels

Fort Lauderdale with Kids

HomeAway Family Dream Vacation in Key West

Ultimate road trip through the Florida Keys

Disney World with tweens

Disney World vacation tips

Start a Discussion

  • Thanks for this post. I’m beginning to plan a Florida trip and my kids would love to do a dolphin encounter, but I’m having sticker shock! I appreciate that this center has some more affordable options. Thanks for pointing them out.

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