Last days at DRC

I’ve got a few last updates on my senior project before I wrap it up and fly home tomorrow! I’ll give you an overview of the past week — The internet has been spotty as of late and I haven’t been able to update as often as I’d like.

Last Thursday and Friday were Claire’s and my days off from DRC. On Thursday my grandmother took us into downtown Key West to look around and sight-see a little. We saw Mel Fisher’s Treasure Museum, which showed off many gold and silver artifacts from the Spanish ship Nuestra Senora de Atocha that he discovered in July of 1985. After that we swung by Ernest Hemingway’s house — a lovely southern colonial-style hosue nestled behind beautiful street side landscaping. Before leaving the downtown area we took a trolley tour of some of the prettiest houses in town — an interesting fact: most houses have unique gingerbread trims that their owners, ship captains, would carve while out at sea, giving each house a distinct and homey look, as well as a connection to the past.

Saturday we went back to work, with no more days off! That was no problem, however, as working at DRC was such a pleasure each and every day. Claire and I did the usual: feeding birds in the morning, sweeping off the underwater platforms, and assisting with encounters. Late in the week, our two Volunteer Directors, Becky and Kris, arranged for us to go down on the docks and partipate in a Meet-a-Dolphin program, in which we gave backrubs to three dolphins (Kibby, Tanner, and AJ) and got handshakes and kisses in return!

It’s been a fantastic two weeks. I fly home tomorrow. Hope you all have had fun reading these posts!


Mary Kate

Exciting Firsts with the Dolphins, Sea Lions and Birds

I’ve got some stories to share from my first three days at DRC! I’ll go by animal:

Dolphins:    “Our middle name is research,” literally, says DRC’s public speaker Julie, and yesterday I got to see my first dolphin research session. DRC is the only facility that allows the public to view their research sessions, so this was quite a treat. Talon, a 19-year-old male, can recognize sequences of numbers from 1 to 5. He ranks in the 90th percentile and has a very high success rate — when I watched him he only made 2 mistakes! The trainers position Talon in front of a blue board, onto which they lower the numbers 1 thru 5 in a random order. Once he is given the signal, he touches his rostrum (nose/snout) to the numbers in their correct order. Pretty amazing stuff!

Sea Lions:    DRC has 3 California Sea Lions: an 8-year-old male named Kilo, and two “elderly” females, Karen and Renee. The girls haven’t even been at DRC for a full year, and have only recently gotten accustomed to actual bay water (as opposed to the freshwater tanks they were kept in for most of their lives). Today, for the first time, the ladies actually waddled down the stairs into the lagoon and swam around! Karen is older than Renee and has gone completely blind, so she was only in for a little bit before she swam back to her trainer for some fishy treats. Renee, however, who still has some of her eyesight, kept on exploring the lagoon for more than fifteen minutes! The best part was when Renee swam beside one of the fences that separate the lagoons and realized that there were dolphins on the other side. She started barking joyfully, and the five dolphins in that lagoon, Jax and Gypsi in particular, started whistling and cheering her on. It was such a cute exchange!

Birds:    Last but not least I had some fun encounters with our tropical birds. DRC has wild peacocks that roam the grounds, and I was treated to a full peacock feather display yesterday! I never knew that in addition to spreading out their feathers in a brilliant display of color, they shake their hard back feathers to make a rustling noise and make the “eyes” of the long feathers vibrate. Also, the fanning out of the top feathers leaves the lower down feathers exposed, so when they turn around, you can see a big fluff ball of soft down feathers — cute and unexpected! Another bird first was my first conversation with Buck, DRC’s sulfur-crested cockatoo. He’s quite the character, and once he realizes you’re the one giving him treats, he speaks to you! His phrases include “pretty bird!” and “bye-bye,” as well as whistles and other incoherent mumbles. I thought I’d never get him to speak but now every time I walk into the avian hut he’s got a lot to say! =]

Just a few anecdotes from my first couple of days at DRC — I can already tell I’m going to miss this place!

First Day with the Dolphins!

“Welcome to the Conch Republic!” said the cheery, cheesy banner at the Key West airport. Claire and I landed in the Keys right about 3:00pm yesterday (Sunday) afternoon. The weather was a balmy 76 degrees, a welcome change from the freezing conditions at Westtown! Unfortunately, that balminess translated into on-and-off rain showers all day today, so after we went through an orientation session, we spent the majority of our day at DRC outside being drizzled on. All is well, though, as the forecast for the rest of the week predicts clear skies. =] 

 Now that I’ve been through a full day, I can give you a better idea of our daily duties. Claire and I start off the day by sweeping off the submerged platforms on which visitors stand when participating in a Dolphin Encounter. Depending on who is given what duty, we sometimes have the responsibility of feeding the tropical birds in the morning. After that, we help out wherever is needed, observing various dolphin encounters and assisting the trainers who run them. We also have the opportunity to structure our day so that we can watch seminars and workshops, or pull research material from DRC’s library. We have lunch around noon, where we eat with the rest of the volunteers and interns. Our next scheduled duty is giving the birds their afternoon snack, around 2:00pm. We then continue helping with dolphin activities until we return to the birds to clean out their dishes as well as the floor of the entire avian hut, at about 4:00pm. We collect trash and recycling from around the grounds and finish up any other tasks that need to be done and leave around 4:30pm. 

Overall, it’s a pretty laid-back atmosphere, but everyone at the DRC takes even the smallest responsibility seriously. I’ve set a personal, albeit somewhat silly goal for myself: be able to identify each of DRC’s 20 dolphins by the end of my two weeks! Take a look at Jax, my first identified dolphin. We’re looking forward to continuing our work with the birds and dolphins and hopefully the next couple of days will be sunny and warm! 

Jax, a rescued, shark-bitten dolphin, one of the most recognizable dolphins at the DRC.

Thanks for reading! 

–Mary Kate

Key West project details

Hi! My name is Mary Kate, and I’m 18 years old. As you know, I’m about to go on my Senior Project and I’ll be keeping you updated on my progress, but first I should let you know where I’m going and what I’ll be doing there. Claire, a fellow senior, and I will be travelling to the Florida Keys to volunteer at the Dolphin Research Center, which is about 30 minutes away from Key West, in Marathon. We’ll be working there, 9am-5pm, for two weeks, starting Monday, Feb 22nd and ending Friday, March 5th. We will stay with my grandmother, who has a condo in Marathon.

Over Winter Break my family actually spent a week in Marathon for Christmas. While we were there we participated in the interactive “Dolphin Encounter” that the DRC offers, and we swam with the dolphins there! It was so much fun and I even met with Becky, the Director of Volunteer Resources. I spoke with her for a while and got a good sense of what Claire and I would be doing every day. We’ll start off every morning by cleaning off the submerged platforms that visitors stand on to interact with the dolphins. We will actually be the first people the dolphins see every morning, and as Becky put it, “if you don’t say hi and play with them a little, you’ll be in trouble!” (I don’t think playing with the dolphins will be very difficult!) But after that, it’s on to the fish house, where we’ll prepare the dolphins’ meals and feed them their breakfast. Some of the dolphins need extra hydration, we will be helping the trainers give them water. After the dolphins have all been fed, we move on to grounds keeping. Since the DRC welcomes hundreds of visitors each day, the grounds must be kept clean, and it’s up to the volunteers to make sure that happens. We’ll pick up any trash and sweep off the walkways, etc. Then we go to the DRC’s tropical bird house, where we will feed them as well.

Those are our basic daily chores. After they are finished, we report to Becky and she’ll direct us where we are needed, whether that be assisting the trainers with the Dolphin Encounters, working in the gift shop, or preparing educational brochures and leading visitor orientation sessions. My hope for this project is that I do something a lot different from things I’ve done in the past as far as experiences. Yes, I have been swimming with the dolphins before, but as far as work experience and skill application, I have only held the straightforward jobs of field hockey referee and lifeguard; they are seasonal and only require a specific set of skills. At the DRC I will be doing all kinds of work; as I mentioned before, not only will I be working with the animals but also with the landscaping and grounds keeping aspects, administrative tasks, and educational work as well. My only real fear is that I might not get everything done that is asked of me. I can see myself getting distracted by the animals that I will be working with, but hopefully not to the point where I neglect my other duties. Overall it should be a lot of hard work, but coupled with great rewards.

Thanks for reading!   –Mary Kate

P.S.  More information about the DRC and their dolphin pod can be found on their website,  =]