The wellbeing of animals comes first at the Dolphin Research Center, a non-profit dedicated to providing safety and sanctuary for its resident ensemble of bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions. Founded in 1984 by Jayne Shannon-Rodriguez and Armando ‘Mandy’ Rodriguez, the facility focuses on rescuing and rehabilitating animals in need, and providing permanent homes for those deemed unsuitable for release back into the wild. A dolphin encounter here costs $199 for around 20 minutes in the lagoon (including a dorsal pull), and the price includes all-day admission to the park, where you can watch and learn about the dolphins. Alternatively, you could meet a dolphin from dry land and snap a photo for $30.
Expect to come away from a day at Fort Lauderdale’s Dolphin World having amassed new knowledge about marine mammals and the delicate ecosystem that supports them. This company owns centers throughout Florida, Hawaii, the Caribbean and Mexico, and meets all government standards when it comes to safety, cleanliness and proper care of its animals. The Dolphin Swim Adventure, which includes 30 minutes in the pools interacting with and training the dolphins, will set you back $220-$240, while the Dolphin Encounter (advertised as ideal for non-swimmers) comes in at $120-$180.
Theater of the Sea used to be a rock quarry in the early 1900s before the McKenney family bought the land and transformed three acres of excavated pits into ocean-fed lagoons. The facility opened its doors in 1946, making it one of the oldest marine mammal centers in the world. Since then, Theater of the Sea has amassed an impressive variety of aquatic species including turtles, tropical fish, crocodiles and stingrays. Swimming with a bottlenose dolphin costs $199, but you can also swim with sea lions for $150 or get up close and personal with a (non-aggressive) nurse shark for $95.
Dolphins Plus has gone to great lengths to create a wild-seeming home that feels as close to the dolphins’ natural habitat as possible; the lagoons, which are ringed by verdant mangroves, are fed by the ocean so the water levels ebb and flow with the tide. Dolphin fans can choose from a huge range of encounters promising different degrees of interaction, from a dockside greeting ($150) or a structured swim ($210) to shadowing a trainer for the entire day ($350). There’s even an option to team up with a dolphin and create a unique artwork – you hold the canvas, they apply the paint strokes ($125).
The closest dolphin-swimming opportunity to Miami proper can be found at the Seaquarium – a 38-acre oceanarium situated on the island of Virginia Key in Biscayne Bay. The venue has a huge range of marine animals, including some endangered species its dedicated staff are working to conserve, like sea turtles and manatees. The Dolphin Odyssey experience allows you to safely interact with a dolphin in deep water for half an hour, trying out training techniques and showering it with affection. The experience costs $220-$240 per participant. Once you’ve ticked that off your bucket list, be sure to check out our list of the best attractions in Miami.