The Etiquette of Connection




The United States’  Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) includes dolphins among its list of federally protected species. The Act is jointly managed by the  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ,the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Federal  Marine Mammal Commission (MMC).

NOAA in particular publishes a useful “Ocean Etiquette Guide.”


And a no-nonsense NOAA “Fisheries Policy on Human Interactions with Wild Marine Mammals:”

…which apparently, not enough people are aware of or simply don’t respect, as demonstrated in this “ONE WORLD ONE OCEAN” video available on YouTube:

What NOAA does NOT provide is a “permit or other authorization to view or interact with wild marine mammals, except for specific listed purposes such as scientific research.



Dolphin Research Center, Grassy Key, FL


Therefore, interacting with wild marine mammals should not be attempted and viewing marine mammals must be conducted in a manner that does not harass the animals.” "Please do not feed or harass wild dolphins." July 13, 2000 —NOAA
“Please do not feed or harass wild dolphins.” July 13, 2000 —NOAA

With my recent visit to Marathon Florida’s Dolphin Research Center in mind, I was eager to know if NOAA feels the DRC conducts genuine research.


Dolphin Research Center, Grassy Key, FL

Dolphin Research Center, Grassy Key, FL


“Not only is it doing legitimate research, it’s the best facility of its kind in Florida,”  said Billy Causey, director of NOAA’s South East and Gulf of Mexico Region.

“I’ve been been based at  NOAA’s Key West site since 1973 and during that time I’ve seen the DRC grow from the place that trained the original Flipper (of television fame) to  a research, marine mammal rescue and outreach facility.”


Dolphin Research Center, Grassy Key, FL


“Yes, the Dolphin Research Center in particular is holding to the protections the marine mammal  act specifies. So long as they hold to those parameters, and continue to combine their research and education components… hopefully they can live up to their mission and goals.”

Causey continued, “Also, the DRC provides a great service to Wounded Warriors who take therapy and comfort during their  dolphin encounters. Physically impaired children and adults take part in their own experiences.” Public Interactive Program: Children and Adults with Special Needs Public Interactive Program: Children and Adults with Special Needs

“I’ve witnessed these exchanges,” continued Causey, “and they are as moving as you might imagine.”

Retired soldier Bryan Taylor, who lost a leg in Afghanistan, enjoys a dorsal tow at Dolphin Research Center, Grassy Keys, Fla., on Friday. (Andy Newman/The Associated Press)

Retired soldier Bryan Taylor, who lost a leg in Afghanistan, enjoys a dorsal tow at Dolphin Research Center, Grassy Keys, Fla., on Friday. (Andy Newman/The Associated Press)


And yet, for all the genuine commitment to the dolphins’ welfare I witnessed at the DRC, I can’t help but ask…

Is it right to hold marine mammals in lifelong captivity to assuage the psyches and hurts of humans? Or to conduct research that aims to teach us about another life-form that deserves unconditional respect, no matter it’s “intelligence” or inherent likability … characteristics charmingly demonstrated in this CNN news clip:

During one of the Dolphin Research Center educational film showings, guide Doug Parisi said the DRC’s adult dolphins are unreleasable for various reasons. Several captive-born adults trace their lineage to two of the dolphins featured in the aforementioned Flipper…*

Mitzi the dolphin with co-star Luke Halpin: original 1963 film Wikimedia Commons

Mitzi the dolphin with co-star Luke Halpin: original 1963 film Wikimedia Commons

He said another, Jax, bears  life-long shark attack injuries:

…and yet another DRC dolphin, Louie, is a gulf oil-spill survivor who, like Jax, was rescued as a young calf, and therefore before his mother could impart all those survival skills required to live in the wild.

As at least one person from every group that attends the not-for-profit center’s educational film asks: “Will your dolphins be released back into the wild or can they come and go as they please…” it is helpful to know the DRC publishes its response at its and in its quite informative souvenir brochure, which states: logo


“Most of the dolphins at DRC were born here or came to us from other facilities and have lived most, if not all, of their lives in human care. Others have been taken in as rescued youngsters after they were deemed non-releasable by the federal government.”

Yet, the population of 24 dolphins currently living at the center is regulated and maintained through artificial insemination breeding – meaning more calves are born into captivity and therefore destined  to be unreleasable… thus affording the DRC with a continued population of research subjects.

So, isn’t it fair to ask if research into communication skills, numbers concepts and mind-fullness conducted on captive born animals gives more than a passing insight into the capabilities of wild-born dolphins?

Won’t the results be skewed by constant contact with humans and the unchallenging confines of a lagoon?

Dolphin Research Center Lagoon, photo taken by Felicity... courtesy

Dolphin Research Center Lagoon, photo taken by Felicity… courtesy

And more than that, what’s in it for the dolphins?

The DRC’s assistant director of education, Courtney Coburn, replied, “We do expect our findings to pertain to wild populations who are, after all, still bottlenose dolphins. There are going to be differences to a degree, but the results correspond more frequently than not.”

Coburn bases that statement on the findings the DRC has shared with Dr. Randall Wells, the director of the world’s longest-running study of a wild dolphin population.


Coburn continued, “Studying dolphins in a human care setting makes it possible to observe interactions that remain mostly out of site in the wild, nursing for instance. These are natural behaviors that will occur in both wild and captive populations.”

Advantage: Researcher. What about the dolphins?

“We learn more about their needs,” said Coburn, “enabling us to gain information that’s of benefit to wild dolphins so laws can be created with their interests in mind.. the regulation of fishing and sanctuaries for instance.  We see the benefits of research extending out to the wild. That’s our goal. We’ve made a care commitment to the DRC’s family of dolphins, sea lions, birds, iguanas… but they are ambassadors for their wild counterparts.”

Coburn paused, then added, “We hope our work generates compassion and interest. We hope our visitors leave asking, ‘What can I do to make sure wild dolphins are just as healthy and happy.'”


Which leaves this recent visitor hoping the DRC’s work, and that of the dolphins living their lives at their center, will help all people forge a greater connection to the oceans all species

ultimately rely on.







“In the end, we will Conserve only what we Love we will Love only what we Understand and we will Understand only what we are Taught.” –Baba Dioum Senegal



*Tursiops Truncatus Trivia: “In addition to Mitzi, four other dolphins were filmed for the production of the movie. Two of the dolphins, Little Bit, a female, and Mr. Gipper, a male, reproduced at the Dolphin Research Center. The calf was named Tursi, and she still lives at Dolphin Research Center. Tursi has four offspring also living at Dolphin Research Center: Talon, Pax, Gypsi and Gambit.”


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