Weekly Update 19

Happy New Year Everyone!

I rang in the new year working in…the fish house. Just like any animal facility/ farm and ranch anywhere, the animals are not out partying and need people to take of them and get them their food! I happened to be one of those people. We are nearing the end of our nutrition course and this looks to be our last full week of preparing the diets.

There is a somewhat competitive feeling in the air lately, as the trainers have entered into a friendly competition with one another to see who can spend the most time training new behaviors. There is so much going on in a session, I almost don’t know who to watch. There are dolphins learning new sounds, new jumps and new husbandry behaviors. The Sea lions are even getting in on it and are learning scent training, when a particular scent is present – it will lead them to do a certain behavior.

As I will hopefully get to train a new behavior soon, it has been good to see all of the different approaches that trainers take. While all of the concepts are similar, some of the trainers have different ideas of how to accomplish that goal. We are really seeing that there is not necessarily “one” way to train/teach a behavior. The one behavior I have seen with the most progress is a paired behavior – one dolphin will swim on its back and another dolphin will come dive over them. It was “dolphin-itely” exciting when we saw them accomplish it for the first time!

Weekly Update 16

Hello Everyone!

This week was one of the first, what I would call, consistent weeks. We had the same class at the same time every morning and then some normal block scheduling of having specific classes on Tuesday and Thursday. Usually, I have to check the schedule each day to know what classes are happening. We have spent every morning learning how to take care of the fish house and prepare diets for all of the animals. Class starts at seven and our goal is to have all of the fish ready by ten, we’ve made it a couple of times but it usually takes us a little bit longer than that. I have learned that if you have internships or when you first start working with marine mammals, it is not uncommon to just be a fish house worker for a good chunk of time before you actually begin working with the animals.

We also started a new occupation class this week, where we will be building a training resume, having a mock interview and job searching. We will also be researching different zoological and aquatic facilities in order to give presentations about them and possibly visit them (or, virtually visit them). It’s a little surreal to think that working with marine mammals is actually a possibility when I am finished with this program. I know we are technically working with them now, but it definitely feels like school verses actually having a job. I might have some moments of panic moving forward when I have a chance to pause and think about this reality. If you know of any zoo’s or aquariums that you think are cool and unique, let me know and I might do a presentation on them!

Weekly Update 12

Hello Everyone!

Well this update is a little bit different because of things taking place in all of our lives. I spent the last week in quarantine because of an exposure to Covid-19. I and the other students are all healthy but as a precaution, our classes were suspended for this past week.  So I thought I would use this update to tell you a little bit of the history from this area.

When I came here, I was surprised to hear about all of the history of marine mammals that happened in the Florida Keys and to hear how prominent DRC is in marine mammal research and how they work to share their knowledge with other places.  The first marine mammal facility was in Augustine, Fl in the 1930’s. In 1946, Theater of the Sea opened its doors in Islamorada – that is the facility I visited a couple of weeks ago. Also, in the 1940’s Milton Santini started creating his facility to board dolphins which was known as Santini’s Porpoise Training School. An interesting fact was that He used dynamite to blasted areas for the lagoons – something that would be highly illegal now. After a couple of owner and name changes that same facility came to be known as Dolphin Research Center. I have since come to learn how active DRC is in sharing what they learn with organizations and other facilities. They are accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal parks and Aquariums and are recognized by the International Marine Animal Trainer’s Association. They have multiple published research studies (their newest one, I was fortunate enough to see in action) – if you are interested in what they have studied you can find samples on their website – https://dolphins.org/references_abstracts.  They have also created a partnership with an aquarium in Japan and have had Japanese trainers come here to learn and they have sent trainers there.  They are also one of the only Manatee rescue teams in the Florida Keys, they will go out when a troubled manatee is sighted and will they aid in sending that manatee to another facility for rehabilitation. I am learning that this can be quite a versatile facility.

Weekly Update 11

Hello Everyone!

This week was very busy running back and forth between classes, specifically Dog lab. We break it up between three classes a day. I think next week we are even moving to four times a day. Wrigley is doing very well, when we started, she basically knew how to sit and how to spin to her right. We have been working on a variety of behaviors and I would say that she has a good foundation for “lay”, “give”, spinning to the left, and jumping up and over a picnic table. She is also a champ at the agility course, the only obstacle that we need to take our time with is weaving through the poles. I am also working on a “tall” behavior with her. This would be her putting her paws on my arm while she stands on her hind legs. She has not quite caught on to that one yet, my goal is to get further with that next week.

Another part of my program is going to different facilities and being able to see firsthand how they operate differently than DRC. This last week I was able to go visit Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, Fl. It is actually the second oldest marine mammal facility in the United States. The site originally started as a quarry, and when it flooded during a hurricane the owners thought that it would make a good site for a park. We were able to visit the birds, meet their dolphins, learn about their sea lion family, see the rescued sea turtles and experience behind the scenes.  It was a fun time, everyone made us feel welcome and went out of their way to show us around.  It was also interesting to see quite a few people who started their career at Dolphin Research Center!

Update: Week 7

Hello Everyone!

Something I feel that I should mention when it comes to this program is the physical aptitude class. We have this class every day and it is the hope that by the end of the program we will be ready to go take employment swim tests at other aquatic facilities. We have done various workouts consisting of yoga, running, insanity videos and of course, swimming. I had the thought when I was swimming today that I should explain how the swimming at DRC is unique.

We swim in the lagoons that the dolphins live in (an empty one after the dolphins have shifted to another lagoon, of course), these lagoons are natural and are situated right in the Gulf of Mexico. It was quite a change coming from an indoor pool to the ocean salt water and everything that comes in it. When I first swam in it, I was very aware of all of the things floating in the ocean and all of the fish. I just continually imagined things touching my feet! You can tell that I’ve already gotten used to it thought because I have referred to it as being “so clear” multiple times- something I did not think I would say.

Now, that all might be interesting but the cool part of swimming in the lagoons is the fact that the dolphins will literally be on either side of the lagoons, stay at the fences and watch you under water the entire time. Every time you do a turn in a lap you usually have a dolphin cheering you on or subtly critiquing your form, both of which I am sure they are capable of doing.

Now, have you ever considered the ocean to be a noisy place? I don’t think I necessarily did but after taking our acoustics class and swimming in these waters, I have noticed that it can be quite noisy. When we first started, we were very aware of loud popping sounds underwater – turns out that it is the popcorn shrimp on the ocean floor. They are quite loud at expressing themselves.

When we swim, we can also hear a very persistent buzzing sound – turns out that is the sound of the dolphins echolocating off of us as we swim back and forth. I’m sure it’s their way of saying, “what in the world are you guys doing?”

Update: Week 6

Hello Everyone!

This week, we students had our first ever unsupervised session from start to finish! What a surprise that was. We spent some time with Louie, Jax and Gambit. Jax was rescued from Jacksonville, MS after he had an encounter with a bull shark. He is missing part of his dorsal fin and tail flukes, and has multiple scars on his side. Interestingly enough, he was not unrelease-able because of his injuries but because of how young he was when he was found. He had not learned all of the behaviors from his mom that were necessary for survival. Louie was found in Louisiana after the BP oil spill in 2010, he was actually the first dolphin that was rescued after stranding. Gambit was born at DRC and is the youngest dolphin in the “flipper lineage.”

So, what exactly happens in a session? It is usually when time is spent at one lagoon with one group of dolphins. Each dolphin has a symbol that they recognize as theirs (similar to name tags) which will tell them where they will be and which trainer they will be with. All of the signals are put into the water at the same time, signaling the start. Sessions are when the dolphins are fed, they do better if they are fed throughout the day so each lagoon will have multiple sessions during the day. In the process of feeding, the dolphins will be assessed each day to keep an overall idea of an individual’s health, relationship building between dolphins and trainers will take place and they will also get some exercise by doing some high energy behaviors. Each dolphin’s session is also concluded at the same time so that the nobody thinks anyone else is getting more fish than them. Guest are also able to participate in sessions. So, while it might look like just playing around – each session is primarily for the health and well-being of the dolphins which can be assessed through playtime and being close to them.

Update: Week 5

My out of the ordinary “first” that happened to me this week was that a fish bit me. Like drew blood and left a bruise kind of bit me.  I had been feeling rather good about myself because one of the other students has been bitten multiple times, with my record of none that must have meant that I was doing something right, right? Nope.  Pride comes before a “bite,” I guess. Apparently, my fingers just didn’t look as tasty until Friday and then my pinky finger bravely took the brunt of the startling incident. Why share that random story? Because unfortunately, it seems that it will be a common occurrence while working in the natural lagoons. Not necessarily something people at other facilities have to worry about, so don’t go around worrying about all trainers’ fingers now.  It usually happens when we are feeding the dolphins and the resident aggressive fish that come and go have figured out that the dolphins are getting fed tasty fish and they don’t have to work as hard.  While feeding the dolphins you really do have to make sure to place the fish in the dolphin’s mouth because if the fish think they have a chance they will even bite the dolphins. I have already seen multiple trainers be bitten while feeding and when they bring their hand up it begins to appear bloody and they have to reassure the guests that it was just the fish. The usual fishy culprits are smaller snapper fish which have canine looking teeth. There is also a damsel fish that has appeared to have laid some eggs near one of the docks and will nibble your legs when you get in the water, they do not usually draw blood.  A hazard you never thought you would have!

On another note, one of the interns was able to get some pictures of us while we were working on a training swim. So, I officially have a picture of me with a dolphin! Atocha enjoys practicing splashing people.

Update: Week 4

Hello Everyone!

Wow! What a full week it has been. We started the week off by being approved to water the dolphins and it definitely moved quickly from there! Watering the dolphins is when they are given drinking water for extra hydration. Dolphins do need fresh water but they normally receive their hydration through the fish that they eat. You will sometimes see facilities helping them by supplementing them with extra water, especially here as the water they live in has been warm at about 85 degrees. This week also marked the first time that we were allowed to get in the water with the dolphins! Each individual dolphin is approved at different times to be part of educational programs, us students were able to pose as participants to help Atocha enhance her program behaviors – such as saying hello, back rubs and in-water handshakes. We were also able to do this with some of the older males – Tanner, Flagler and Rainbow.  Continuing with big happenings, on Friday we were expecting to do a feed from the dock but were then told we would have our own play/ feeding time in the water. I was able to play with Jax which was very enjoyable. He liked playing with dive rings, rubber balls and having splash fights.  Then to finish off the week (which already had a lot of firsts) I had my chance to have a session with TWO dolphins. I was able to finish off the week working with Cacica and Atocha. They both enjoy games of moving from dock to dock.  One thing I didn’t realize about working with dolphins is how quickly you become covered in fish scales!

Update: Week 3

Hello Everyone!

I am glad to report that I aced my dolphin identification exam this last week! It took a lot of intense staring at the dolphins but I can now say I can identify the dolphins; it might take a minute but I can do it! This week we continued in our public speaking course; we have each been assigned a presentation to learn that is usually given to the public. I received the topic of baby dolphins, so I am sure that I will be sharing more about that in the future.

This last week I was also able to be closer to the sea lions and observe the trainers with them. There are 4 sea lions here, their names are Lina, Kilo, Diamond and Karen. They have all come from different facilities/ were rescued and have DRC as their forever home. One of my favorite movies is called Andre (some of you may have heard of it), it’s about a seal in Maine. The interesting part is that in the movie, Andre is played by a sea lion. If you haven’t seen it, go watch and enjoy it.  What I am realizing about Sea Lions is that I won’t actually get to have a “friendly” buddy sea lion. Most of the sea lion interaction is through protected contact with a fence between you. That makes me a little bit sad but it is still fun to watch them and prepare to work with them. We also had a course on sea lions and dolphins this past week, and it has been interesting to learn how they are different but also about the similarities they share by being designed as deep diving animals. This week we begin our animal handling course which should be very interesting!

Update: Week 1

Hello everyone!

I have officially had my first week at Dolphin Research Center! I arrived on Sunday, August 23rd and jumped right into classes on Monday, August 24th.  Classes begin at 8 am and go straight through until 530pm. We have also been told that classes will begin to be at 7am this week and go until 6pm! Talk about having non-stop days. The initial classes have been introduction to the facility and animals, building relationships with the animals, conservation, physical education and public speaking.

While mainly focusing on lecture this first week, we will begin to have more labs this week and have more specific time with the marine mammals. Dolphin Research Center houses 25 dolphins and 4 California sea lions, as well as some exotic birds. For one of my class projects, I am required to be able to identify each animal and be able to tell others how to identify them. I never thought of identifying animals as a difficult task but apparently, I hadn’t spent much time considering how to identify dolphins before! Mainly relying on scars or very uniquely shaped fins – if it’s a “perfect dolphin” they all look very similar and I just have to decide who is a lighter grey in a specific area! Definitely finding it to be a bit of a challenge. I will hopefully have them down by the exam next week!