There are several dolphin encounter options in the Keys. I looked into all of them, stopped by Dolphin Plus to see facility, drove past the others and ended up giving this location in Marathon Key a try - here's why and what I liked:
*I did not have to invest in a $200 encounter up front. For $20 ($15 if you look for coupons in local guides), I could spend the entire day watching others have encounters to see what you really get for your Bucket List adventure and could watch many dolphin training sessions up close (not back in the stands like Sea World). Every hour there was a different kind of training session, demonstration, or encounter going on to watch. The trainers & keepers explained in great detail what they did, how they trained, safety, rescues, and answered questions from the people visiting. I ended up paying $25 to do the pet a dolphin encounter. I would have done the $199 dolphin swim, but 74F water kept me out (too cold for me), but I saw other determined souls do it and have a great time. As others indicated, the dolphins appeared to be happy, interested, and very excited when they executed their tasks well (they would whistle and click loudy the more excited they got). OK - now for the investment:
*Swim with a Dolphin - $199 for ~20-30min in water (total time) and you could be by yourself or with up to say 10 others put in your group. The trainers appear to work hard to ensure each individuals gets to complete each behavior. I watched two days worth of encounters here. Folks got to get in the water on a submerged platform next to a floating platform about waist deep (some brought life vests, others did not). The dolphins (1 or 2 per group) were asked to swim past participants so each could pet them. Each also got to hold on and shake flippers as the dolphin pushed up out of the water and each got to get splashed by the dolphin flapping flippers at them (fun). The "big moment" varied by participant & dolphin. One group had participants swim out a few feet from the platform and the dolphins would come from behind and the individual had to reach for the dorsel fin on each and get towed around in a brief loop back to the platform (photographer standing by). Two of the dolphins seemed to take folks on a wide path around while another seemed to do a smaller loop. No money back if you get the short-loop dolphin. I did not see anyone without a big smile ear to ear in either case. So bottom line - if you go by yourself & were lucky enough to be the only one in your group, it would not mean you get 20 or 30 min of dolphin time, it means you get to complete all the exercises, but likely in a shorter period of time. Participants also got to do a few signs to get the dolphins to do a trick.
$110 or $125 - Get in the water with a Dolphin
About 20 min in the water on the submerged platform, similar to the more expensive adventure, however, individuals do not get to swim with dolphin - they get to pet, to flipper shake, get splashed and do a few tricks.
*Pet a Dolphin - $25 - Participants get on floating platform at waters edge, dolphin is asked to swim by one ore more times until all in that session get to pet the dolphin as it swims by. Then, one at a time, Dolphin gets in front of individual and comes up out of water, you gently hold flippers for photo -op with big cheesy - I love this dolphin look on face.
DVD of your experience by semi-professional photographers $15 (I thought reasonable).
We went two days in a row just to watch dolphins & I splurged both days the $25 to pet the dolphin. I got to pet a toddler dolphin in training on day 2. We also got to watch three young dolphins teaching themselves how to jump up onto the floating platform in between training sessions (on their own). They even helped push each other up on the platform - they are sooooo smart and engaged.
Other things I liked about this facility:
*Dolphin enclosure was a fenced off part of the beach so it was more natural for them than a tank like some of the other facilities. They had room to move around and often did alot of people watching between demos.
*Most trainers generally had some time of biology or psychology degree - many had interned for free to get their positions - who wouldn't want that job?
*Each dolphin consumes $40,000 of fish a year, fees & encounters go to their feeding & vet costs. Some have noticable damage from shark attacks.
*Other Dolphin encounters had you pay $180-$200 and a fee to watch if not participating and $40 to $70 for dvds. I liked being able to spend the day for $15 or $20 and decide if it was worth the $199 to do the encounter. I will do it someday when the water is >78F.
*Just a few miles from the Turtle Rescue - so you can see both in the same day if you wish (recommend that too).
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