Monday, September 29, 2008

Kids Who Grew Up to Work Together

We often talk about the fact that we are one family at Dolphin Research Center – footed, finned and flippered! Most of you know that we have two and three generations of dolphins. You might not realize, however, that we also have two generations of dolphin trainers. Kelly Jayne Rodriguez is the daughter of the DRC co-founders President/CEO Jayne Shannon Rodriguez and Executive Vice President Mandy Rodriguez. Jennifer Erb is the daughter of Vice President of Animal Care and Training Linda Erb.

Kelly Jayne and Jenn both grew up at DRC, playing here with their siblings as well as the DRC dolphins. (Something that Jayne and Mandy’s granddaughter/Kelly Jayne’s niece Madison now does, too!)

As young adults, they now work with dolphins as a career. Recently, KJ and Jenn engaged in some informal playtime with the dolphins up in the front lagoon. Jenn threw out an oversized inflated beachball and the game was on. Ras and Gypsi chased after it, batting it around, and then steering it back to the dock so Jenn could toss it out again and again. Santini got into the act, playing with the ball and screaming encouragement at Kelly Jayne and Jenn. Maybe she remembers when they all used to play as kids.

Eventually, Ras steered the ball into the far corner and got it stuck in the mangroves. Kelly Jayne carefully walked the narrow boardwalk ledge across the lagoon to rescue the ball. She tossed it back to the dolphins, and what do you think Santini did?

She knocked it back into the mangroves again for KJ to retrieve. Tina smiled as if to say, “See what I made you do?” Definitely the dolphins like to turn the tables and train us!

Jenn came over to help and a new game started. Whenever one of the young women tossed back the ball, one of the dolphins took aim and tried to knock it under the boardwalk or into the mangroves.

The fun continued for quite sometime while guests and other staff members laughed and applauded the action. Finally, KJ and Jenn had to go off to do a “real” session with other dolphins, but everybody – dolphin and human – knew that another chance for playtime would come around soon.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Keeping the Keys Clean!

The cleanup crew gathers around all the debris we collected.

On Friday, September 19th, around 25 Dolphin Research Center staff members and volunteers pitched in to clean up the bridge and surrounding area at the Tom’s Harbor Cut, mile marker 60.6. In less than two hours, the cleaning crew gathered 35 bags of trash, plus a snarled mass of rope so big it took the towing power of two Jeeps to pull it completely out of the water. A discarded fishing net, a truck tire, broken step stool, dive tank, pieces of rebar and a large assortment of other debris were also collected.
In addition to polluting the ocean environment, all of these items have the potential to harm dolphins, manatees, birds, turtles and other marine life!

We tried to haul out this snarled rope, but finally needed two Jeeps to get it out of the water!

It’s amazing that so much junk can be found at a single location. Recent storms might have contributed to blowing some of the stuff around and into the water, but there were plenty of bottles, cans, bottle caps, cigarette butts and other trash items found that clearly were discarded by people using the bridge.

At least this junk is no longer polluting the ocean!

Dolphin Research Center performs cleanups at this area a few times a year. Friday’s event was scheduled in cooperation with the Ocean Conservancy’s annual Coastal Cleanup

Friday, September 19, 2008

Rainbow . . . Kibby . . . Marco . . . Polo

Kibby and Rainbow can turn any activity into a game!

Trainer Marie recently went out to narrate a session on the causeway. Rainbow and Kibby decided to add their two cents. Every once in awhile one of the dolphins made a short, loud sound. Within seconds, the other dolphin responded with a similar sound of his own. Back and forth they continued and Marie had a difficult time not laughing during her narration. This vocalization exchange reminded Marie of the game Marco Polo which is usually played in swimming pools. One person closes his or her eyes and calls out, “Marco”, the listens while everyone else responds “Polo”. The Marco person then swims in the direction of the closest voice and tries to tag them.

Leave it to Kibby and Rainbow to create a dolphin version!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mother Knows Best

Here at Dolphin Research Center, we have an excellent reason for teaching the dolphins a behavior called beaching. For this behavior, they bring their entire bodies up out of the water onto one of the floating docks. We have a flat metal scale we can put on the docks and then, when they beach on it, we can obtain an accurate weight.

To us, it’s an important voluntary medical behavior. The dolphins just think it’s fun! When Santini and Merina first learned to beach, they’d practice it by themselves all the time. We’d look over and see dolphins posing on the dock for guests. Their older kids, Pandora, Calusa and Tanner did the same thing when it was their turn to learn. It’s no surprise that Ras, Santini’s young daughter, is already slipping and sliding her way across the dock and Cayo (Merina’s youngest) is quickly progressing.

Tursi is another matter. While Tursi will beach on request, she’s often finicky about it and prefers to do it on the very edge of the dock. She is not sure at all that her daughter is old enough to be learning this particular behavior. Well, Gypsi has a mind of her own and she doesn’t want Mom to keep her from doing things that her slightly older friends are trying.

Gypsi shows us that she definitely has a mind of her own!
The other day, Gypsi succeeded in eluding her mother long enough so that she could boost her entire little body up out of the water onto one of the docks. Santini decided to join her in the behavior. However, when she came up, she slid into Gypsi a bit and the youngster ended more in the middle of the dock, and unable to wiggle herself off back into the water.

Seconds after Santini slipped from the dock, mother Tursi noticed what had happened. She sped up, launched herself out of the water in perfect beaching style right to the center of the dock and bumped Gypsi back into the water! She then chased her little girl around the lagoon, as if to say, “See what happened? I told you not to do that!” Gypsi kept leaping out of the water as if answering, “Okay, okay! I get it now!”

Tursi knows best when it comes to her daughter!

We don’t know how long the lesson will stick, but knowing Gypsi, she’ll continue practicing her beaching whenever she can do it without Tursi stopping her. As for Tursi, we always knew she could beach perfectly. She’s just reinforced that she prefers to do it on her terms!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

DRC to Reopen Thursday after Hurricane Ike

Luckily, Dolphin Research Center and all of the Florida Keys were spared a direct hit by Hurricane Ike. Over the course of a tense few days, while we constantly monitored forecast reports by the National Hurricane Center, the storm pushed further south over Cuba where it dropped in force to a Category 1.

All day on Tuesday, the Keys experienced gusty Tropical Storm force winds, rain showers, and some surging surf. However, all in all, we really feel like we dodged a big bullet. Our hearts go out to the people of the Turks and Caicos Islands, Haiti, Cuba, and other places who were not spared the devastation of Hurricane Ike.

We're delighted to report that everyone in the Dolphin Research Center dolphin and sea lion family is fine and the facility did not suffer any major physical damage. Monroe County officials have announced that visitors can return to the Florida Keys as of this Thursday, September 11th. Dolphin Research Center will reopen on Thursday morning so that we can welcome visitors as they come back to our islands.

If you're coming to the Keys and would like to experience a Dolphin Encounter, Dolphin Dip or other interactive program, our reservations line will reopen on Thursday at 9 am eastern time -- 305-289-0002.

We hope to see you soon. The dolphins are waiting!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

DRC Prepared for Hurricane Ike

One of the most frequently asked questions we hear is, "How do you prepare for a hurricane?"

Since Hurricane Ike is churning in our general direction, we think this is an appropriate time to blog on this topic. First, we'd like to assure everyone that DRC has a detailed, comprehensive hurricane preparedness plan that addresses the many issues we face as a facility. Senior management has monitored the progress of several storms -- Hanna, Ike and Josephine -- all week and our preliminary preparation began a few days ago.

As you can imagine, hurricane preparation is an enormous process that requires a great deal of time, plus the hard work and team effort of everyone on staff. Each of us knows what to do to protect our own areas, and when finished, how to help other departments.

Yesterday, as soon as we received word that the Monroe County officials (All of the Keys are in Monroe County) had ordered a mandatory visitor evacuation to begin this morning, DRC officially closed to the public so that staff could secure our offices, the buildings, the grounds and, of course, the many animals in our family.

We removed and secured items that could blow loose in a storm: benches, dock steps, trash receptacles, picnic tables, sign frames -- you name it! Boats, vehicles -- even the "lunch truck" -- were locked up tight and moved away from the lagoons to a safer area.

As if high winds aren't enough of a threat, offices located on the ground floor must also prepare for the possibility of flooding. Computers and other equipment, important paperwork, and other items were moved to "higher ground", i.e. upper level buildings. Those of us already on the second floor also packed important files and smaller items into plastic tubs and covered our computers, printers, telephones and other electronic equipment with plastic bags -- just in case excessive wind and rainfall causes the roofs to leak.

Every window and door at the facility has strong shutters that we locked tight in place.

Hurricane Wilma's visit in 2005 taught us a valuable -- and costly -- lesson. The storm surge reached between 7 to 10 feet and devastated DRC with horrible flooding. We lost so much in terms of equipment, vehicles, docks, platforms and more. Some buildings had to be completely gutted and rebuilt from the inside. (Some buildings remain unusable.) We experienced problems with our telephone and computer systems for months.

When we rebuilt, we took the lesson to heart and made adjustments. For example, in the Animal Care and Training office on the ground floor nearest the dolphin lagoons, all of the power sockets and plugs for computers are located high up on the wall. We built an elevated concrete "hub" bunker to house the communications center. Generators for emergency power are located on elevated platforms, too.

To protect the precious food supply for our animals, we constructed the new fish freezer in solid, thick concrete and elevated it several feet above the ground.

The tropical birds were moved from the outdoor aviary into individual wire cages and relocated to a secure building. Although all of the cats are accustomed to roaming around outside, for the duration of the storm threat, they've also been moved inside.

As you know, we can't move the dolphins, but we prepare them as best we can. Executive Vice President/Co-Founder Mandy Rodriguez leads a skilled crew of people that stays at DRC during the storms, hunkering down in a secure building. As the storm approaches, the dolphins receive full meals of fish and, if they need it, some extra water, to take them through the event. As soon as the storm passes and it's safe for people to go outside, the crew will go out to the lagoons to check on the pod and feed them again.

In a worst case scenario, if the surge again topped or destroyed the fences, and the dolphins opted to go out to deeper water, we'd need to find them if they didn't return after the event. Most of our dolphins were born at DRC, or have lived most of their lives here or at another facility. Accustomed to human care, they lack adequate survival skills. Over the years we've developed helpful measures that we employ during hurricanes.

We've created special bands that they wear around their peduncles. These are constructed of a soft, stretchy wetsuit-like material in very bright colors with break-away fasteners. The bands are marked with DRC contact information. If for any reason the dolphins become lost and can't find their way home, we believe they will eventually seek out humans. The bright peduncle bands would immediately signify that these are special dolphins and help us reconnect with them.

The pod is also trained to respond to a recall device. Called a pinger, this device sends out a unique click sound that transmits one to two miles in the ocean. Every DRC dolphins knows that when they hear that sound, they should follow it back to its source. We practice this drill in the lagoons a few times a week. The dolphins rush to the pingers and receive an enthusiastic welcome and a delicious fish reward.

We've also been developing a hurricane pack that can be attached to the dorsal fin with some comfortable suction cups. A radio transmitter can be connected to the pack that would transmit a signal each time the dorsal broke the surface of the water when the dolphin rises to breathe. By tracking the signal, we could reunite with our beloved dolphins.

Senior management will continue to meet regularly in person or by phone during the storm. We know that we have done everything possible to secure DRC. Everyone except for the stay-behind crew needs to perform their own preparations at their homes. A mandatory evacuation for Florida Keys residents goes into effect in phases beginning Sunday morning.

Most of us will leave and take refuge elsewhere in Florida where Hurricane Ike, hopefully, won't visit. We'll wait, watch the hurricane reports, and pray that the storm doesn't deliver a crushing blow to our islands. Please think good thoughts for everyone at Dolphin Research Center -- footed, finned, furred, or flippered -- and for everyone who lives in the projected path of Hurricane Ike.

As soon as possible after the storm, we'll find out from the stay-behind crew how DRC fared. When we know, we'll post the information on the blog.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Did You Know?

Paper accounts for roughly 38% of landfill content

Americans use more than 67 million tons of paper per year (about 580 pounds per person).

Every year more than 900 million trees are cut down to create paper and paper products.

Every Sunday, Americans throw away 90 percent of newspapers, which are recyclable. This wastes 500,000 trees!

Each ton of recycled paper can save 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, three cubic yards of landfill space, 4,000 kilowatts of energy and 7,000 gallons of water!

Look for products made out of recycled material!

· Many cereal boxes are made with recycled paper

· Flooring can be made from crushed glass and broken light bulbs

· Ceiling tiles can be made from recycled newspaper

· Roofing can use recycled aluminum.

Save resources by reducing waste.

About 4 billion pounds of paper are used each year to create direct-mail catalogs.

Remove yourself from many marketing lists by registering online or send a postcard with your name, home address, and signature to Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, P.O. Box 643, Carmel, NY 10512. You can also contact a company directly and ask to be taken off its list.

Trees produce the oxygen we breathe. Recycling paper saves trees and helps marine mammals, people and other air-breathing species.

Recycle, Recycle, Recycle! It really makes a difference.

These tidbits were brought to you by your conservation-minded friends at Dolphin Research Center!