Researching Dolphin Psychology The Dolphin Research Center in Florida

By Abi King | Make Me Think

Jul 25

Dolphin leap at the Dolphin Research Center

Swimming with Dolphins

As a child, I always wanted to swim with dolphins. And, if I’m honest, as an adult as well.

Swimming with dolphins has become a cliché in the repertoire of half-formed dreams, wishes and wonderings of those who realise that their time on this earth has limits. Yet it wasn’t until I sat down to write this post that it occurred to me to question why.

Dolphins in the Wild

I’ve been lucky, catching sight of dolphins in the wild off the shores of Oman, Tenerife and even Dingle in Ireland (although, to be fair, it was dolphin singular in that last case.) Each time, even in Ireland, sunbeams sparkled across the waves, almost daring onlookers with their brilliance.

“Are you sure?” they seem to say. “You’re sure you want to see dolphins? Look closely, then, and prepare yourself for staring into the light of the sun itself.”

Wet dolphins reflect light like diamonds. They’re also fast: blazing through the water, throwing crescents above the sea while they race besides the boat.

The Dolphin Research Centre, Florida

Dolphin & Trainer at Florida's Dolphin Research Center

Yet today there wasn’t going to be a boat. I was standing in the Dolphin Research Center in Florida – and training, instead of chasing, was the name of the game.

To the sound of whooping and hollering, we lazed through the Florida Keys sunshine to meet the team, led by aficionado Mary Stella.

“Y’know,” she says to us in a sunshine state drawl. “If I were a dolphin, I’d want to be born here.”

There’s a tricky moment, I think, when talking to anyone who deals with animals in captivity. For a start, you have to remember to avoid the word captivity, a task that inexplicably becomes impossible as soon as you have to remember to do it.

Research centres, sanctuaries and programmes like these are clearly gallons of water away from cramped zoos and performing circuses. And there’s no doubt in my mind that Mary, and the other members of the team, show far more devotion towards the animals in their care than I do.

I’ve written before about my unease and unanswered questions about aquariums – and my eyes and mind have been opened by the replies in the comments sections.

Yet still, as someone besides me murmurs under his breath about wanting to live free in the oceans, questions arise and I just wish we could talk more openly about one or two things.

Perhaps burned by the press in the past, the staff remain cautious today.

The Dolphin Research Center lives, no soaks, in the Florida sunshine. The trainers wear splash vests and swim suits and the dolphins really do seem to wear smiles.

Nets and fences carve up the ocean into spaces for the dolphins, who roam freely in between.

Dolphin Jump - Male dolphins let off steam in Florida

A Male Dolphin Lets Off Steam

Dolphin Psychology

“During Hurricane Wilma,” says Mary, “the water covered the walkways and the dolphins could have left. But they didn’t.”

This is exactly the kind of thing I wish they’d talk more about. They’re a specialised research centre, performing robust tests into dolphin counting, object permanence (remembering where you left the car keys,) foetal echocardiography and more.

They should know, then, psychologically speaking, that just because an animal doesn’t try to escape, doesn’t mean it wants to stay. There’s the phenomenon of learned helplessness, whereby animals realise that no matter what they do, they cannot break through a certain barrier. Eventually, when that barrier is removed, they no longer try. It leads animals to starve themselves when food is plenty; it’s thought to explain why abducted children stay with the adults who molest them. After enough failed attempts, animals simply learn that it’s too dangerous to keep on trying.

Of course, this may have nothing to do with the dolphins here. The science geek inside me would just have liked to explore it as a possibility.

Children helpl train dolphins - everyone seems happy

Everyone seems happy…

Training Mice, Men & Dolphins

As it is, just a short afternoon here opens up all kinds of questions about animal training (and yes, that includes husbands who won’t pick up their socks, children who won’t tidy their rooms, women who won’t stop nagging and writers who won’t stop using clichés.)

In each pen, we see different stages of training. In the main one, the adult males leap into the air, turning somersaults, twisting and shimmering beneath the sun to the whoops of encouragement from the team.

“We use positive reinforcement here,” Mary explains, as the males munch their way through a coolbox load of fish and good cheer. “We don’t punish.”

A dolphin trainer with fish

A dolphin trainer with fish

Behind me, I see what happens when something goes wrong.

Two small platforms bob into the water, where children take turns at touching or training the young dolphins. With a deft, quiet signal, everyone walks away.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Someone did something they’re not supposed to,” replies one of the trainers, leaving me to wonder whether we’re talking about child or dolphin.

“Dolphins are just like you,” says Mary, when I try to find out what happened. “They get grumpy. They have mood swings, too.”

A scurrilous accusation.

“Dolphins are just like you,” says Mary. “They have mood swings, too.”

Across the way, a baby dolphin takes its baby flips through the training routine. It wins a fish each time it correctly touches the target pole. The next stage involves correctly identifying its name as a symbol – a cross or a crescent or a circle, say, – next to the target pole.

“Dolphins pick out the symbols with echolocation,” explains Jennifer, a Senior Education Officer. “They can only see for about 10 metres – and they can’t see well ahead.”

Children watching dolphins

Babies watching babies

Besides the merry baby in training, baby humans are at play.

At the Dolphin Research Center, you can pay to swim with dolphins. You can also, as I saw, learn to paint with them as well.

This is dolphin training at its most subtle. The trainer before us, sporting a hat and a trademark suntan, merely touches his fingers and thumbs together in the slightest of moves to exact the most intuitive of responses.

“You want a photo?” he says. “You don’t need to ask me. Look.”

At a quiver of his fingers, the mother dolphin pauses from painting to swim by and pose.

It’s impressive. Even breathtakingly, cliché-ridden, awesomely so.

The boy’s face fills with delight as he braces the T-shirt against the dolphin’s paintbrush, while I still can’t explain why dolphins, rather than tarantulas, pigeons or rats, hold such appeal.

Perhaps it comes down to this worldly-wise quote from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

“Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons.”


Or perhaps, it comes from another:


  • The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish

As for me, I still have more questions and, in spite of that, I’d still love to swim with dolphins.

In the meantime: So long and thanks for all the tweets.

Dolphin trainer makes tiny gesture to command dolphin

Small gestures are enough…

Swimming with Dolphins -Disclosure

I visited Florida as a guest of Virgin Holidays as part of a Florida Photo Safari both at the Dolphin Research Center and elsewhere. The usual, exciting, disclosure policy applies…

Swimming with Dolphins in Florida

PS – You can swim with dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center


About the Author

Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on

Linda July 26, 2011

I’m lucky that I swam with dolphins before my questioning of them being in captivity bothered me as much as it does now. The first time was in 1996, and I think it may well have been at the same place you visited. I forget the name, but it was on Key Largo, and did research, but I imagine there may be more than one. It was just as you describe, though. By 2002, the next time I visited the Keys, I’d decided that I was definitely against dolphin shows, but surely research was ok…..for the good of the majority and all that? That was at Theater of the Sea on Islamorada, and the staff seemed equally as dedicated and confident that their dolphins were happy. It certainly was one of the most magical experiences of my life, and I’m happy that I can plead ignorance now.

Since I live on Tenerife, I’ve had lots of opportunities to see both dolphins and pilot whales in the wild, including lying on my stomach with my face over the edge of a boat, with a school of dolphins seemingly flying along side us. In the wild they can travel up to 100 miles a day, when I discovered that it made my mind up. Then I saw “The Cove.” Obviously the slaughter is repulsive (and much else) but when Rick O’Barry talked about his days training Flipper, and how his mind was changed I was totally convinced.

    Abi King July 28, 2011

    Thanks, Linda, that’s really interesting. I haven’t seen “The Cove” – but perhaps I should. Some of the dolphins at this research centre are the direct descendants of the Flipper time – but you’re right there are other places in the Florida Keys.

      Linda July 28, 2011

      I have a spare copy if you’d like it. I saw it at the cinema, and was so knocked out by it I order two copies from Amazon (One to keep and one to lend because I’ve lost too many dvds and books etc that way!). However, it has now just about done the round of my friends and colleagues, so If you’d like it, I can send it you with pleasure.

        Abi King July 28, 2011

        Wow, thank you. Off to do that now…

Natalie July 26, 2011

I love how you have wrote this article. You have really gone in in-depth on the subject. I am torn in two over the dolphin aquarium discussion. Your post makes room for a lot more thinking.

    Abi King July 28, 2011

    Thank you. I’m still not sure where I stand – after all, is it any different to people training dogs as pets? And it’s certainly better than factory farming…

Matt July 26, 2011

You bring up some good points here. I’ve kinda come to the whole “travel the world” thing via SCUBA diving. I’ve dove with dolphins, sharks, mantas, and tons of other rare and cool ocean critters.
The diver/ocean hugger in me says that it is wrong to keep any of these animals in captivity. But that’s easy for me to say because I’ve had lots of first hand experience with these animals in the wild. Most people in the world will never have these opportunities (even some who are divers) so the only way that they can experience these animals, and thus become educated is to see them in captivity.
The oceans are being pillaged at an alarming rate and this type of education is essential for long term survival.
It’s definitely an issue for discussion.
Sorry for the rant, I just love talking about this stuff…

    Abi King July 28, 2011

    No apologies! Good to hear your input (and I’m rather jealous about your diving experience…)

Andrea July 26, 2011

Love this post – you raise some really interesting and important questions here that I never thought of when I was a kid, visiting Florida and seeing “dolphin shows” and animals in captivity in places like Sea World. Certainly food for thought. Must have been an amazing experience getting so close to them and learning so much.

    Abi King July 28, 2011

    It is amazing to get so close – and to see how well-trained they are. The Dolphin Research Center is probably a half way point between the big choreographed shows in some aquariums and running wild in the sea…

Andy Hayes | Sharing Travel Experiences July 27, 2011

Wow, quite an in depth piece. Lots to think about. I’ve never swam with dolphins, and never had a desire to – but now thinking more about it for sure.

Laughing still at the dolphin translations… ah, so that’s what he meant…

    Abi King July 28, 2011

    Brilliant, aren’t they? I love Hitchhiker’s Guide…Perhaps I should read it again!

Steve July 29, 2011

Wonderful post as ever. On one hand an entertaining read – on the other it raises thought provoking questions that no-one seems to have an answer to. Plus several references to the best books ever written! So long, and thanks for all the posts!

    Abi King July 29, 2011

    Glad to find another Hitchhiker fan ;)

This is a tricky situation, imo. While certain research centers might be “ethical” in the treatment of those animals in captivity, many “dolphin attractions” and similar ones with other animals worldwide do not let them roam, keeps them in tiny pools and just don’t give them a “happy life” so to speak. Thus, I will tweet this post so people strike a balance, but I still don’t 100% agree with keeping these beautiful, intelligent, FREE animals in captivity–unless is to help them and let them free at a later date (unless, well, they come back and/or decide to stay!

Federico September 1, 2011

It’s funny how my latest post is just about this too- or rather my experience on swimming with dolphins in the wild, accompanied by a biologist that has been studying the same pod for over 30 years. It was wicked!

Abi King September 3, 2011

Heading over to have a look…

where the dolphins swim September 28, 2011

Your discussion about learned helplessness struck a chord with me. As a social worker, I understand how this plays out in people. This very well may have been the case with the dolphins. Of course, we may never understand why they do what they do. I have come to the conclusion that I do not support captive dolphin programs, but I concede this may not be a black and white issue. Like one of the posters above, it is easy for me to preach that captive dolphin programs are inhumane. I have had dozens of up-close interactions with wild dolphins over the years. But, if I am being honest, my love of dolphins really intensified after I participated in a captive dolphin program in Tahiti many years ago.

You know the saying “you only care about what you know”? It seems I learned to care deeply about dolphins because I got to “know” them in captivity. Hmmm…the struggle continues. You have written a very thoughtful post. Thanks.

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