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The temperatures are dropping, you’ve pulled out the heavy sweaters from the back of the closet, and snow is falling from the sky: It must be winter time…unless you’re in the Florida Keys. Without all these obvious cues, how do we know it’s winter here? Believe it or not, it does cool off here just a little bit, and once our water temperatures dip below 68 degrees Fahrenheit something very dramatic happens: all the manatees disappear. These amazing mammals, so common in the canals of the Florida Keys all summer long, move en masse to warm water springs in the winter time.
Despite their robust shape, manatees actually have very little body fat. Without this insulation to protect them, their only defense against the cold is to leave. Luckily for the manatees, Florida is the home to several natural warm-water springs that bubble up from underground. These springs remain a delightful 75 degrees year round, just perfect for a manatee. Two springs hosting the largest winter gathering of manatees are Blue Springs on the east coast of Florida and Crystal River on the west coast. Manatees have even been known to search out manmade warm water sources such as the output drains at power plants!
Manatees are protected in this country under the Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. They are also incredibly loved, and so every winter people travel en masse, just like the manatees, to Blue Springs and Crystal River to see them. From boardwalks, boats, or even underwater, people can slowly, quietly, and unobtrusively have the priceless opportunity to see these gentle giants up close. With specific direction, and requirements for “Manatee Manners”, people from all over the world have learned to love this animal who, legend has it, was the inspiration for the first mermaid sighting. And for those who are unable to make the trek this winter, the Save the Manatee Club provides a live feed from the manatees’ wintering grounds on Manatee TV.
Why is all of this so important? Because when the water warms up, and the manatees once again venture into oceans, bays, rivers, and other heavily-traveled waterways, these slow-moving herbivores will find themselves in dangerous territory. With boat strikes posing serious threats to manatees’ survival, the most important thing we can do to protect them is to remain watchful from our boats and respectful of speed limits. What is the one thing that may cause a hurried family or an impatient boater to slow down and be careful in manatee habitat? Love and respect for these animals. So, with our absolute belief that up-close interactions with animals inspire conservation behavior toward these animals and their habitats, we encourage you to enjoy the manatees this winter and ensure their survival next summer.
“The Florida Keys: it’s like going to the Caribbean without needing a passport!” We hear this all the time from our American visitors appreciating the simplicity of their in-country travel, but for our international guests coming all the way to the Keys, a little assistance from a knowledgeable source is very helpful. With so many of our visitors coming from the United Kingdom, we are grateful to work with informed and ethical travel operators like Virgin Holidays.
More than just a travel agency, Virgin Holidays has a non-profit foundation called Virgin Unitewhich strives to “…unite great people and entrepreneurial ideas, reinventing how we live and work to help make people’s lives better. We believe business can and must be a force for good in the world – and that this is also good for business!” While this business philosophy extends to all areas of the Virgin Holidays destinations, it plays a very key role in their organized trips to destinations with whales and dolphins in human care. Wanting to remain true to their mission of ensuring that “business is a force for good in the world”, Virgin Unite recently published the Virgin Pledge on Sea Mammalswhich defines their commitment to ending the wild capture of whales and dolphins for tourism.
The Virgin Pledge was a result of thorough research, unbiased investigation, and taking the time to truly listen to all sides of the issue of marine mammals being cared for at zoos and aquariums, as well as the demands of their own clientele who expect stimulating and conflict-free travel opportunities. Dolphin Connection has proudly signed the Virgin Pledge on Sea Mammals without hesitation. After all, we have never and will never collect dolphins from the wild. We are proud to work with Virgin to create enriching and enjoyable experiences that transform the way its customers engage with and learn about the oceans and marine life.
We are excited about the possibilities this new partnership will offer, and we are not alone: over 30 marine mammal facilities around the world have signed the pledge. Together, zoos, aquariums, and ethical businesses and citizens can work to inspire conservation on behalf of animals everywhere. With this in mind, Virgin Holidays recently sent their Responsible Business Manager, Mirieme Hill, to attend the annual meeting of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums’ Education Committee. Wanting to know and truly understand more about our dedication to conservation education, Ms. Hill attending the entire three day workshop hosted last month at SeaWorld San Diego. Impressed by the quality and diversity of programming offered by members of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, Ms. Hill opened up the potential for partnerships even wider. Pre-visit programming, post-visit programming, coordination of follow-up conservation activities? The possibilities are endless when you allow ethical, dedicated businesses to truly listen to the requests of their clients for enriching activities that can change their lives and the planet for the better.
So as you plan your next visit to Dolphin Connection in the Florida Keys, you can feel confident knowing that we are part of a larger group of organizations who work to ensure that your heart, your soul, and your mind can all feel good about your well-earned vacation. Enjoy!
Here at Dolphin Connection, we love dolphins. Chances are that since you’re reading this blog, you do too, and it might even be safe to assume that dolphins aren’t the only animals who hold a special place in your heart. We hope so, because today we want to step outside of our typical area of focus to talk about another intelligent, large, social, gray mammal: elephants.
Recently, several members of the Dolphin Connection team had the opportunity to attend an international conference for people who work with animals of all kinds. Because of the broad subject matter, we found ourselves learning not just about dolphins and other marine mammals, but also about land animals of the furry, feathery, and scaly variety. The conference commenced with a keynote speaker from the Wildlife Conservation Society who told us of the plight of the African elephant and of the 96 Elephants campaign whose aim is to unite people around the world to protect these amazing animals from extinction.
African elephants are an iconic species, known for their size, their trunks, and of course their tusks. These tusks, found on both the males and females of the species, are made of ivory, and while crucial for their survival, they are also integral to their demise. Although the commercial trade of ivory has been illegal since 1989, illegal poaching continues at a pace that threatens the elephants’ future survival: 35,000 elephants per year, 96 elephants per day. At this rate, we will lose the African forest elephant in 10 years and the East African savanna elephant soon after.
“If we do not act, we will have to shamefully admit to our children that we stood by as elephants were driven out of existence.” – WCS Conservationists
Rather than individual subsistence hunters with homemade weapons of yesteryear, poachers nowadays are high tech militants with automatic weapons, night vision goggles, GPS equipment and even helicopters. If they sound like professional criminals, they are. In fact the black market for ivory helps to fund many notorious terrorist groups.
So who can stop the killing? You can! Crushing the demand for ivory crushes the reward for the poachers. Increasing awareness of the issue increases the size of, and the support for, the army fighting for elephants’ survival.
Are you politically inclined? Click here to learn more about the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s efforts to ban the commercial ivory trade and here to ensure that the controls on trade of elephant ivory stand strong.
Are you active on social media? Click here to take an #elphie and share it with the world! The more people who know, the more people who care!
Ninety-six elephants a day. Every day. Today. Tomorrow. And on, until our army of animal lovers becomes bigger and stronger than the army of poachers fueled by a black market demand for ivory by people who are unaware or unaffected by the possibility that we may soon live in a world without African elephants.
As always, we were so happy to return to our island paradise in the Florida Keys after this amazing conference, and while we are grateful for the healthy conservation status of bottlenose dolphins in the wild, it is imperative that we – and you – never forget how many other animals around the globe need our help, every day.
Photo Credit: Julie Larsen/Wildlife Conservation Society
Many people are understandably concerned about the inhumane killing of dolphins that occurs during the Japanese drive fisheries. The Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums - and all of its member facilities including Dolphin Connection - shares that concern. The AMMPA is an organization that advocates for marine mammals and whose members inspire their guests to learn about and respect these animals, protect them in the wild, and conserve their ocean environments.
The Alliance and its members strongly condemn the Japanese drive fisheries. It is a centuries-old practice, but it is time for it to come to an end. Alliance members do not support, fund, or acquire animals from the Japanese drive fisheries. Not one animal in an Alliance member facility or interactive program is from Japan. Alliance policy strictly prohibits any zoological park and aquarium from joining the organization if the facility acquires animals from the Japanese drive fisheries.
The majority of the dolphins cared for by the Alliance members - more than 65% - were born in accredited facilities, thanks to tremendously successful breeding programs and the high quality of animal care provided by accredited members.
The Alliance has urged U.S. government and representative agencies to proactively work with the government of Japan to bring an end to this practice. If you share our concerns and want to help stop the slaughter of dolphins and whales in Japan, please write to the Prime Minister of Japan at www.kantei.go.jp/foreign/forms/comment.html and the Japanese Ambassador in Washington D.C., at email@example.com.
The Alliance and its members share your love and respect for these amazing animals. We dedicate our lives to caring for dolphins, whales, walrus,manatees, otters, seals, and sea lions every day. The Alliance encourages the public to partner with our members to increase public awareness on the many issues that threaten marine mammals and their ocean habitats.
Some of you loyal readers of the Dolphin Connection monthly blog may remember that last September we wrote about the critically endangered vaquita, a very small porpoise found in Mexico’s Gulf of California. At the time, populations were estimated to be in the low hundreds and dropping due to gill net fishing in the area. While the vaquita themselves are not the object of the fishery, they are frequently the unintended bycatch of an indiscriminate fishing practice.
Just recently, an updated study has come out estimating the vaquita population at less than 100. Most tragic is the fact that the reproductively mature females number less than 25, typically giving birth to one calf every other year. At this rate, the current population cannot withstand the mortality that they face. Although the local community has long depended on the fishermen to feed their families, there has recently been a very sharp rise in the use of gill net fishing. According to the article below, this rise is due to the illegal trade in China of a fish called the “totoaba” whose swim bladder is believed to have medicinal properties. One of the scientists involved in vaquita conservation in Mexico has reported that fishermen are being offered $8,500 per kilogram of totoaba by the Chinese black market; much more than they would ever make during a day of fishing to feed the community.
The good news is that other than fishing nets, there are very few threats to the vaquita. With increasing awareness about this dangerous fishing practice and the illegal trade of the totoaba to China, there may still be a chance for the vaquita.
We’re so very grateful for our healthy dolphins and the healthy status of wild Atlantic bottlenose dolphins who are not endangered. As the sun sets over another summer in the Florida Keys with the team at Dolphin Connection sharing the opportunity to swim with dolphins with so many of you here at Hawks Cay Resort, we encourage you to think about the animals who need our help, and to learn more about what you can do to increase the chances of their survival:
The team here at Dolphin Connection is lucky enough to meet families every day that are raising children who care for and respect wildlife and wild lands. We know how important this is because in just a blink of an eye, these children will be the decision makers for our future. With this in mind, zoos and aquariums around the world have always focused a large percentage of their educational programs on the youth in their community. We know that this kind of programming needs to be fun, high energy, and current in order to keep our children engaged, but celebrities, video games, and social media will really seal the deal! A wonderfully successful example of just such a program is SeaWorld Kids Generation Nature. With Bindi Irwin, daughter of the late renowned environmentalist Steve Irwin, providing the celebrity hook, Generation Nature is a website that leads children through games, projects, and environmental challenges using every kid-friendly resource imaginable.
We love what they’re doing at SeaWorld and we encourage you to check it out!
On the 8th of last month we celebrated World Oceans Day, and in fact Dolphin Connection and other zoological facilities accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA) took it a step further and celebrated World Oceans Month! We took all of June and proclaimed #OurWorldOceans through social media. The goal of this campaign was to bring attention to the ocean environment and to all the animals who depend on it. Through Facebook and Twitter, thirty days of animal information, conservation tips, and calls to action were posted with the hashtags #OurWorldOceans and #AMMPA.
While accredited zoos and aquariums have always been a cohesive team, working together for the welfare of our animals, this was the first time we’ve embarked on a unified campaign using social media as a global platform for animal advocacy. Look around your living room, public transportation, or even a restaurant; what do you see? Chances are that there are people of all ages, including teens and tweens, glued to their smart phones. And what are they doing there? Tweeting! Blogging! Facebooking! This is how our young people communicate and as part of that, it’s also how our young people will share their passions, their ideas, and their hopes for the future. With the survival of our animals and their habitats in the hands of our youth, joining them where they hang out – on social media – is the best way to ensure that they have all the crucial information that they need as they get older and become our environmental decision makers.
With this in mind, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums introduced MarineMammalMonday, TakeActionTuesday, AwarenessWednesday, CreatureFeatureThursday, FunFactFriday, SelfieSaturday, and ShareTheLoveSunday. Every day included inspiring photographs, useful weblinks, and scientific information about the marine species we love. The success of this campaign was so great that we’re not going to stop with the end of World Oceans Month. Keep your eyes open for more information coming from all your favorite marine mammal facilities at #AMMPA. As long as you want to learn, we want to teach!
Last month, the team at Dolphin Connection was honored to be a part of Family Science Night at Treasure Village Montessori School here in the Florida Keys. Supported by the Ocean Reef Community Foundation, Keys Ahead, Inc., and Florida International University, this community-building event included a variety of science activities designed to engage students, parents and teachers.
As one of many special guests at this exciting event, we were excited to share our own passion and enthusiasm for marine science with the people of the Florida Keys community, and we were just as excited to learn from the other local scientists and conservationist represented. So, on a beautiful Friday evening we jumped in a car drove into the sunset on our way to Treasure Village Montessori in Islamorada.
Upon arriving at the school, we were greeted by a variety of other participants, all representing scientific organizations in south Florida. Included among these colleagues were The Turtle Hospital, NOAA Fisheries, The History of Diving Museum, and The Coral Restoration Foundation. Clearly we had a great night ahead of us!
We set up our booth full of activity sheets, conservation tips, career guides, and even some fascinating bones and skulls, and soon the doors opened and one by one, families, local community members, and teachers began to arrive. The school itself hosts students from pre-K through 8th grade, so the attendees at this event represented that age range, as well as all the associated parents and grandparents. One thing we know about dolphins is that they excite and inspire people of all ages, and this night was no exception. Who doesn’t want to see what a dolphin’s skull feels like or learn about the amazing role that their lower jaw plays in echolocation? This group certainly did!
Of course, one of the unique qualities defining children of the Florida Keys is that many of them are out on the water frequently and they’ve seen all the fish, sharks, birds and – yes, dolphins – that children in the rest of the country may only dream of. Because of this our focus wasn’t just, “Look how cool dolphins are!” – these students already know that, but instead we focused on safe, respectful, and law-abiding ways to share our oceans with the animals who call it home. So many of our local children have family members with boats and even family members who are professional fishermen, so what could be more important than to make sure that these children grow up with an awareness of the ocean as a home as much as it is a place for recreation? With this in mind, every individual who passed by our booth received a “Dolphin-Friendly Fishing and Viewing Tips” card and had the opportunity to learn more about wild dolphins’ natural behaviors and why it is so important to give them the space to hunt, parent, and socialize without fear of boats.
By the end of the evening, the adults had their hands full of take-home projects, informational brochures, and gifts, while the children were immersed in a spontaneous game of freeze tag in the school’s playground. Delighted with the number of people we reached at this special event, our team packed our bags and drove back to Hawks Cay Resort, ready for another day of Inspiring Conservation and swimming with dolphins!
Here at Dolphin Connection in the Florida Keys, we are so grateful for our small island community. The friendships and partnerships that come from island life are priceless; nonetheless we certainly like to be reminded of the big world out there and our most recent visitor certainly did just that!
Last month we were honored with a visit from world-renowned marine mammal veterinarian, Dr. Geraldine Lacave. Hailing from Belgium, Dr. Lacave works as a consultant for multiple marine mammal facilities in Europe and worldwide. She is also a member and active participant with the EAAM (European Association for Aquatic Mammals), IMATA (International Marine Animal Trainers Association), and IAAAM (International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine). Recently, Dr. Lacave was in the United States for a marine mammal conference and we were lucky enough to convince her and her family to spend some time in the Florida Keys for some sunsets, beaches, and of course swimming with dolphins at Hawks Cay Resort. While she was here, she took the time to speak with the Dolphin Connection training team about marine mammal veterinary training, with a focus on pre- and post-partum care for bottlenose dolphin mothers and calves.
The trainers here at Dolphin Connection range from experienced professionals who have been in the field for over 20 years, to young beginners whose careers in dolphin training are just in their infancy. For all of us, regardless of our time in the field, opportunities like this are precious. In fact, one of our most senior staff members said, after listening to Dr. Lacave share her experiences with dolphin newborns, “No matter how long one has been in the field, there is always something to learn. The learning process with these amazing animals never ceases!” Other reactions from our team included, “Even though I know it, see it, and live it, the obvious dedication people around the world have for the animals under their care continues to be inspiring!”
Ultimately, one of the most important reasons for animal training is that it allows us to take better care of the animals we love. Directly or indirectly, every behavior we train our animals to do benefits their health. Have you met a dolphin and pet its tail fluke? Did you know that that behavior is crucial because it allows us to safely take a blood sample so that we can be proactive about our veterinary care? Have you ever rubbed a dolphin’s side as it lay out in front of you? That behavior allows us to complete an ultrasound exam to track a pregnancy or assess the health of internal organs. Hearing from Dr. Lacave about the benefits of husbandry (veterinary) training and learning about all the ways in which she’s seen it lead to advancements in the healthcare of dolphins is inspiring to all dolphins trainers and our team could not be more grateful.
It’s Spring Break and everyone is flocking to the Florida Keys! College kids? Busy families? No, I’m talking about birds! Every March and April, many species of birds migrate through the Florida Keys from their southern wintering grounds in the tropics where they’ve been gorging on bugs and berries. Some of these migratory birds fly right over us on their way further north, while some of the birds stop for a while, resting and refueling before they complete their trek. Typically this great migration begins in March, but it really reaches its peak in April. In fact, the influx of birds is so great at this time of year that Doppler radar used for weather forecasting will pick up “clouds” of birds with densities of 10,000 birds per square mile! These animals are fast-moving, however, and they will have left our islands by mid May so now is the time to come see them.
If you have binoculars or a zoom lens, you’ll be in good company as you join the other birders who – along with the birds – flock to the Keys as the southernmost point of the Great Florida Birding Trail. Warblers, sparrows, herons, and spoonbills, are some of the birds you may be lucky enough to see if you spend some time on our island chain with your eyes to the sky!
What could possibly make a successful day of birding even better? How about swimming with dolphins at Dolphin Connection?! A vacation full of wildlife in the Florida Keys at Hawks Cay Resort with the birds above and the dolphins below: Well it just doesn't get any better than that! So have a wonderful Spring Break and say hi to the animals in your neighborhood: both the permanent residents and those just passing through.
March has arrived, and along with it comes some very exciting news! Last month Dolphin Connection was inspected by both the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA) and the International Marine Animal Trainers Association (IMATA) and this month we can proudly announce our reaccreditation by these professional organizations. These inspections take place every five years and the resulting membership with these associations assures us, our colleagues, and most importantly YOU, that we are doing the very best for the animals in our care.
Renewing our accreditation by the AMMPA is a process that began with a written application and ended with an on-site inspection by experts in the field. Topics included animal training and breeding, staff training and development, environmental quality, and so much more. Inspectors observe interactive programs and classes and visit any behind-the-scenes area they’d like. They look at animal records and they interview staff members. Ultimately their goal is to determine that the facility they are inspecting is doing everything it can to raise healthy animals, manage educated and informed employees, and present inspiring and informational programs.
Renewing our accreditation by IMATA also included the completion of a written application and then a subsequent on-site inspection. In this case, the focus was primarily on the training and development of our staff. What are our requirements for hiring? How do we train our trainers? Are there exams they must take and readings they must complete for advancement? Is their growth evaluated and measured? Ultimately, their goal is to determine that our staff is as prepared and qualified as can be to provide a working environment that is safe and healthy and enriching for themselves, our dolphins, and you!
Last month’s reaccreditations continue our long and proud history of membership in these professional organizations. As knowledge in the marine mammal training field has grown, we have grown too. Our animals are even healthier and happier, our expectations of our staff are increased, and our hopes for you are greater. So, thank you to our visiting inspectors from the Alliance of Marine Mammals Parks and Aquariums and the International Marine Animal Trainers Association! We loved having you here and having the opportunity to show you what we do every day and why we are so proud to be marine mammal trainers.
And to all of our guests who have been here in the past, and will come in the future to swim with our dolphins at Hawks Cay Resort in the beautiful Florida Keys: Thank You. We enjoy every opportunity we have to share our animals with you.
February is here and love is in the air. Happy Valentine’s Day to all of you, and also to all of the animals that we love here at Dolphin Connection and all around the Florida Keys. Luckily for these animals, we’re not the only ones who love them; many organizations here in our island chain are dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and release or long term care of the local wildlife.
Just down the road from us is the Marathon Wild Bird Center. Located at Mile Marker 50 at the Crane Point Hammock, the Marathon Wild Bird Center is dedicated to animal care and community education. Whether it’s the native, year-round bird population or the seasonal, migratory population, the Marathon Wild Bird Center is here to help them. Typical issues causing a bird to need assistance are entanglement in fishing line, injury due to ingesting fish remains from fishermen, starvation, or premature separation from parents. While the Wild Bird Center does a wonderful job with all of their patients, we could all make their job easier by doing our part to make the Keys a safer place for birds to live.
Are you a fisherman? If so, the simple act of keeping your used fishing line and fishing hooks on board until you find a proper trash or recycling receptacle can save so many animals’ lives. Fishing line is designed to be invisible: that’s why it works so well with fish. Unfortunately, it’s also rather invisible to birds and other wildlife. Fishing line that is discarded from boats, bridges, marinas, etc. ends up floating in the water, tangled around pilings or electric lines, or wound around rocks or seaweeds. All of these final resting places for the line are also resting places for the birds, and one wrong step places the bird’s foot right into a pile of line that works just like a snare. Simply pledging to not let our line loose in a bird’s habitat can make such a difference.
Now, after you’ve had your successful fishing trip and all of your used fishing line has been placed in the recycling bin, you need to clean your fish. It seems completely natural to discard the skin, bones, and other unusable parts of the fish right back into the sea. It’s even satisfying when other animals like fish, sharks, and birds come to enjoy these remains. Unfortunately, most predatory marine life, including pelicans, are not meant to eat fish in pieces. Instead, they eat the fish whole. This means that their delicate bodies are protected from the fish bones until these bones are safely decomposing in the animal’s stomach acid. Pelicans who scavenge from a fisherman’s spoils can tear their fragile throat pouch on these bones. Throwing your fish bones into the trash rather than giving them to the begging birds is so much safer, despite what the birds might try to tell you!
Past the Marathon Wild Bird Center is the Turtle Hospital. Just like the Bird Center, the Turtle Hospital focus on wildlife rescue, rehabilitation, and release or long term care. Also, just like the Bird Center, one of the primary causes of injury to the wildlife that they see is ingestion of, or entanglement in, fishing line. So many of the patients at the Turtle Hospital have ingested a fishing hook and line and are now suffering as it tries to make its way through their system. Other common injuries are due to boat strike by boaters who are going too fast through the sea turtles’ home. Luckily, just like with the wild birds who need our help, the solutions to the sea turtles’ problems are so absolutely within our power. Care with our fishing gear, appropriate speeds on our water ways, and awareness of our impacts on the planet: these are all wonderful Valentine’s Day gifts that we can give to our fellow Keys residents this month.
We wish you all love, sunsets, romantic visits to Hawks Cay Resort, and of course fun times swimming with dolphins. But most of all, we wish for health and happiness for the wonderful animals walking beside us, swimming around us, and flying above us.