Playful Florida Keys dolphins are prolific throughout the islands. They are the some of the most appealing and entertaining creatures on the planet and one of the prime marine attractions on the archipelago. You will encounter them in many places during many different activities, from snorkeling off one of the secluded beaches to seeing them accompany your boat while you're out on a fishing or sailing expedition. You can also swim with dolphins in Key Largo or go on a Key West dolphin swim for a truly personal encounter.
This activity is also possible in Marathon Key at the Dolphin Research Center, which was established in 1984. It comprises four acres between US Route 1, also known as the Overseas Highway, and the Gulf of Mexico. The Research Center is also active in manatee rescue, helping to save and preserve one of the most endangered mammals in the oceans. In Islamorada, you can be entertained by Florida Keys dolphins as well as swim with dolphins, sea lions, and different species of rays. This is at the Theater of the Sea, which also offers cruises and boat tours and is an excellent venue for weddings and other group events.
You can swim with dolphins in Key West or go on a Key Largo dolphin swim in two different ways, each providing a unique experience. One involves captive Florida Keys dolphins, and one involves wild ones. Some people do criticize the captive dolphin encounter and its policy of allowing visitors to touch the animals, but it is true that these facilities work hard to ensure a safe and sustainable environment for the wards in their care. Groups are kept very small, rarely more than six people at a time, and the length of the visit is generally limited to only 35 to 45 minutes. You can have a Key Largo dolphin swim at Dolphin Cove in both ways. There are structured swims in the lagoon where you can have hands-on interaction, and a natural Key Largo dolphin swim that is a freestyle snorkeling adventure in which all contact must be initiated by the dolphins. The fact that you are not allowed to make first contact with the dolphins in no way detracts from the experience, as these wild dolphins are quite curious, friendly, and playful. The Dolphin Cove also caters to weddings and does tours and cruises across Florida Bay to the Everglades.
A Key West dolphin swim offers you the opportunity for the most natural of wild dolphin encounters. This kind of encounter is most appealing to purists, and you will swim with truly wild—not trained, captive, or overly habituated—dolphins in their natural habitat. Other wildlife that can be seen during these cruises includes endangered sea turtles, stingrays, and manatees as you enjoy swimming and snorkeling around shallow reefs and mangrove island habitats in the backcountry waters. Many of the companies offering these kinds of tours also offer scuba diving and deep sea fishing trips, as well as cruises to Dry Tortugas National Park. Some companies also offer a Key West dolphin swim that caters to clothing-optional adherents and the Key West gay travel community.
Image: Bob Krist/Florida Keys News Bureau