Dolphins in the Florida Keys live in the wild, only a few reside at dolphin training facilities throughout the Florida Keys. Bottlenose dolphins are the most common and well known members of the dolphin family. Even though they live in the ocean all of the time, dolphins are mammals, not fish. Also, dolphins are different than the “fish dolphin,” which are also known as mahi-mahi.
Like every mammal, dolphins are warm blooded and enjoy the tropical waters surrounding the Florida Keys. Unlike fish, who breathe through gills, dolphins breathe air using lungs. Dolphins must make frequent trips to the surface of the water to catch a breath. Their blowhole is located on top of a dolphin’s head and acts as a “nose,” making it easy for the dolphin to surface for air.
Other characteristics of dolphins that make them mammals rather than fish are that they give birth to live young rather than laying eggs and they feed their young with milk. Also, like all mammals, dolphins even have a tiny amount of hair, right around the blowhole. Whales and porpoises are also mammals. There are 75 species of dolphins, whales, and porpoises living in the ocean. They are the only mammals, other than manatees, that spend their entire lives in the water.
Dolphins generally live in groups of up to 30, known as pods, and work as a team to harvest schools of fish. Bottlenose dolphins communicate through burst pulsed sounds, whistles, and body language. Examples of body language include leaping out of the water, snapping jaws, slapping the tail on the surface and butting heads. Sounds and gestures help keep track of other dolphins in the group, and alert other dolphins to danger and nearby food. They produce sounds using six air sacs near their blow hole. Each animal has a uniquely identifying vocalization (signature whistle).
Researchers from the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute (BDRI), based in Sardinia (Italy) have now shown whistles and burst pulsed sounds are vital to the animals’ social life and mirror their behaviors. The tonal whistle sounds (the most melodious ones) allow dolphins to stay in contact with each other (above all, mothers and offspring), and to coordinate hunting strategies. The burst-pulsed sounds (which are more complex and varied than the whistles) are used “to avoid physical aggression in situations of high excitement”, such as when they are competing for the same piece of food, for example.
While boating throughout the Florida keys, you are likely to see pods of dolphin feeding or playing. They are known to be attracted to boat noises and may venture over to check you out. And most times they will leave as fast as they arrived. If you are interested in learning more about dolphins and would like the opportunity to swim with them, several facilities throughout the Florida Keys offer programs to do so. You can find a facility by going to Best of The Florida Keys Internet Guide and selecting “Attractions” near the area you plan to visit.
An area of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is home to a resident group of bottlenose dolphins. Many businesses conduct dolphin tours in this area, which can stress the dolphins. To help reduce disruption to dolphins in the sanctuary, the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, National Marine Fisheries Service, the Dolphin Ecology Project, and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society created the Dolphin SMART program. This program recognizes businesses that promote responsible viewing of wild dolphins.