Updated: May 21, 2015
Swimming with Dolphins in Florida - Key Largo Dolphin SwimsIf you plan a vacation to Florida and the Florida Keys, it's all about the water -- beaches, swimming, boating, diving, fishing. That's what you come to Florida for. One special activity you can do in Florida is swim with dolphins. The old TV show "Flipper" started in the Keys - there's just something about dolphins and the Keys that go together. There are a number of facilities in the Florida Keys that specialize in dolphin encounters and dolphin swims. Popular as therapy for disabled people, contact with dolphins can be a very special experience -- and it's not cheap. Expect to pay $150-$200 for a chance to swim with dolphins in Florida.
Starting in Key Largo and closest to the Florida mainland, there is Dolphins Plus (DolphinsPlus.com) and their sister-facility Dolphin Cove (DolphinsCove.com). At MM 84.5 in Islamorada, there is Theater of the Sea (TheaterOfTheSea.com). On Duck Key at MM 61, you'll find Dolphin Connection at Hawk's Cay Resort (DolphinConnection.com). And finally at MM 59 at Marathon you'll find Dolphin Research Center (Dolphins.org) -- look for the giant leaping dolphin out in front. You'll find activities ranging from petting and feeding the dolphins to swimming alongside dolphins to being towed through the water by dolphins. We looked all of these over and decided to do our dolphin swim with Dolphins Plus (if we had to rank them, we'd probably put Dolphins Plus first, then Dolphin Research Center, then Theater of the Sea) -- our detailed review and experience is below.
Dolphin Encounter - Dolphins Plus Dolphin SwimDolphins Plus (DolphinsPlus.com) is located at 31 Corinne Pl., on Key Largo (just off Ocean Bay Drive (Google Map here -- the property is actually to the right of the marker shown on this map, right at the corner of the intersection, you can see the bridge that crosses the canal between their 2 sets of water pens). It's in a mostly residential area, straddling a canal that connects to the ocean. Parking is located across the street in a sand/dirt lot (handicapped parking only available in the lot directly in front of their building). Head upstairs to get checked in. They offer 2 dolphin swim programs, one called the Structured Dolphin Swim and one called the Natural Dolphin Swim. The Natural Dolphin Swim is offered twice daily (9:30AM and 1:30PM, check website for latest times) -- you get a 1 hour briefing/educational period, then 30 minutes to swim/snorkel in the dolphin pen along with the dolphins (no touching, no tricks). Cost is $135 per person. We chose the Structured Dolphin Swim to get more personal interaction with the dolphins. In the Structured Swim, (8:30AM, 12:45PM, 3:00PM) you get a 45 minute training/education period, then you participate in a group interaction with a dolphin, guided by a trainer ($165-$185 per swimmer).
We were there the week before Spring Break, and as luck would have it, we were the only participants in the morning structured swim. After checking in, we met our trainer who would be working with us that morning and headed out the back door and down the stairs to the pool/pen area. He gave us a brief tour of the facilities. As mentioned above, they straddle the canal with a large training pen (see photo at left - the dolphins swim freely in that area to the right, the canal is to the left) on either side and an elevated bridge/walkway that connects the two. As we walked by each pen, we were surprised to watch each dolphin swim past, tilt their head up, and stare at us -- apparently they like checking out new visitors! Then we headed for some picnic tables and went through the training program, learning about dolphins and the rules for our dolphin swim. They provided complementary wetsuits (recommended unless it is a really hot day) and a flotation vest, then we headed for the water.
The large water pens have about 6-8 training platforms around the perimeter. During the Structured Swim program, trainers work at the various stations with their particular dolphin(s). There were 7-8 dolphins swimming around freely in our tank, but as we got started, each one was called over to a particular platform to work with a trainer. Normally each trainer would have a group of swimmers with them, but in our case, it was just the 2 of us with our trainer, and the other trainers worked by themselves (we saw a later session where the participants were standing on a platform that was lowered a few feet under water, so the dolphins could come up and swim past them -- not sure how often they use something like that vs. having the swimmers right in the water). Basically, the trainers work with the dolphins 3 times a day, and in this program, you kind of get to be an assistant trainer, helping the dolphins learn and carry out their taught behaviors.
Now the fun part starts. You slide gently into the water (slapping the water is a no-no), then follow the instructions given by the instructor. Everything is guided and supervised by your trainer. First she had the dolphins go out and bring us a "gift" -- pieces of seaweed. Then we swam a little further out and the trainer had the dolphins begin their other behaviors. They swam to us and let us pet their backs and stomachs. We all spun in circles in a dance. We held a hoop and they jumped through it. We held 2 pectoral fins and were towed through the water by 2 dolphins. We floated on our backs (see photo at left) and stomachs and 2 dolphins pushed our feet, propelling us through the water. Sometimes the dolphins messed up and didn't do the right behavior -- that's all part of the training process. The most amazing part was how powerfully and silently these beautiful mammals moved, you realize how out of your element you are in the water and how perfectly at home they are. All told, we spent almost 30 minutes in the water. Normally, in a group session, you would be sharing that time with several other people and probably have a little less dolphin interaction time.
So our impressions overall...? We thought the Dolphins Plus facilities were first rate, from the wetsuits to the bathroom and shower facilities available afterwards, and the staff was very down to earth and friendly. Then there are the dolphins... These sea creatures really are amazing to be around. They exude such intelligence and are so engaging, it's hard not to fall in love with them. We had a great experience, and yes, it was worth the money. Would I do it again? I did it with just one of my children, so yes, I would probably take another child when they got older. I don't think I would do it again by myself just for kicks -- for most, it really can serve as a once in a lifetime experience, and most of use are willing to spend a few hundred bucks for that.
You can make reservations to swim with the dolphins at Dolphins Plus BY PHONE ONLY - (866) 860-SWIM.
Is swimming with dolphins safe?This was a question we asked and researched when we started planning our trip to the Florida Keys. The idea of being in the water with these big beasts sounds thrilling, and a little scary. When we looked around for stories about people being injured while swimming with dolphins, we only found a few incidents outside the US (Mexico) -- it seemed to be a pretty rare occurrence. During our dolphin swim, the dolphins always seemed to be very mindful of our "space" -- they would swim up close but never touch you with their bodies unless they were supposed to. And when they swam away, the powerful tail seemed in complete control - not even brushing us in the slightest. With the trainer right there, we always felt safe -- it really is a daily routine for these working mammals, and they really seemed to enjoy their contact with us. I'd probably be a little more worried with smaller children, but overall I think any dangers are far outweighed by the benefits of such an amazing experience.
The one complaint we had was a photography fee to get a copy of a CD with photos on it -- obviously, you can't really take your camera in the water, so you are at the mercy of their staff photographer(s) who are snapping shots from the dock. If I'm paying you hundreds of dollars, can't you have a photographer snap 5-10 photos of us AT NO CHARGE and post them on your website so we can download them and treasure them and ADVERTISE your company for you? Instead, they want you to pay $80 for a photo-CD of your dolphin encounter. We bought a CD to see what the photos look like, and in general they were good. But why keep trying to take more money from families? Just give them the darn pictures after they paid so much for the activity in the first place. It may be a personal peeve, but I like to see things fairly priced -- the photos should just be a bonus.