Dolphin Research Center was founded as a nonprofit corporation in 1984 by Jayne Shannon-Rodriguez and Armando "Mandy" Rodriguez. Their goal was to ensure the dolphins had a home here for life, and in doing so to establish a unique education and research facility.
The bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions presently living here provide a range of personalities and backgrounds. Over half of our family was born at the Center, while the other members have either come from other facilities or were rescued, rehabilitated and deemed unreleasable back into the wild by the Government and now have a forever home at Dolphin Research Center.
- Chapter 1: The Beginning
To understand Dolphin Research Center today, it’s important to know our roots. The journey from humble beginnings to today’s world-renowned reputation is interesting, to say the least.
The first person to bring dolphins to live here on Grassy Key was a commercial fisherman named Milton Santini. Back in the 1940s, he collected dolphins for other marine mammal parks and aquariums, as well as private individuals. Milton is responsible for creating our deep lagoons in the Gulf of Mexico waters (by blasting them out with dynamite) and establishing the first facility on these grounds – Santini’s Porpoise Training School.
Milton and his wife Virginia loved the dolphins that shared their home and provided them with the best care that they could. One time, when a hurricane threatened the Florida Keys, Milton was so concerned about their dolphin family that he moved them into the house, keeping them wet with damp towels until the storm passed.
Milton’s favorite dolphin was one named Mitzi. Shortly after Mitzi was brought in, Milton suffered a broken back. As part of his rehabilitation efforts to regain his strength, he’d sit in a recliner near the front lagoon, squeezing a black rubber ball in his hand. One day, he dropped the ball and it bounced into the lagoon. Mitzi, who by this point had not received any training, grabbed the ball and threw it back to Milton! This time he purposely threw it some distance away. Mitzi retrieved it and again tossed it back to Milton, continuing the spontaneous game! Because of this, Milton promised that he would never sell Mitzi to another facility.
Milton was not an experienced trainer at this time of his career. He learned by observing his dolphins and their responses. If they did something that he liked, he’d try to figure out what he’d done right before their action and then repeat it to see if they’d respond again.
Mitzi and several of the other dolphins that lived here went on to star in the original Flipper movie in 1963.
Two dolphins who also appeared in Flipper – Little Bit and Mr. Gipper – lived here for many years. Their family lineage continues with their daughter, Tursi, and her offspring who live at DRC today.
Milton loved introducing the dolphins to the public. He saw that the dolphins seemed to particularly respond to children. Several current staff members remember meeting Mitzi and the other dolphins in the 1960s.
Mitzi passed away in 1972. A memorial in her honor can be found on the grounds of DRC today.
Heartbroken over the loss of his friend Mitzi, Milton sold the property to Wometco Corporation which renamed it Flipper’s Sea School.In 1973, a young married couple arrived from New England Aquarium to work with dolphins that were intended to relocate to that facility in Boston. However, Jayne and Mandy fell in love with the Florida Keys and wanted to remain. They were subsequently hired to work at Flipper’s Sea School.
The Beginning Timeline1973Little Bit and Mr. Gipper’s daughter, Tursi, is born – the facility’s first successful birth. The Flipper heritage continues!1977Wometco sold the property and dolphins to a well-known whale conservationist named Jean Paul Fortom-Gouin who renamed it the Institute for Delphinid Research. His goal was to prove that dolphins were highly intelligent. He hoped to use this argument to convince the world to stop hunting whales.1983The work Fortom-Gouin did at IDR was influential in persuading the International Whaling Commission and its member countries to limit, and in some cases stop hunting whales, a close cousin of the dolphin. In 1983, the IWC adopted a voluntary whaling moratorium.
With his primary goal achieved, Fortom-Gouin offered the business, the dolphins and all of the debts to Jayne and Mandy Rodriguez, who at the time were serving as his general manager and head trainer respectively. He promised to lease them the land for five years if they wanted to make a go of it.
They accepted the challenge and officially founded Dolphin Research Center as a nonprofit organization early in 1984. Their early vision and commitment to the DRC family of dolphins became the foundation for an incredible future.