Miss Grace and I took a last minute quick trip to the Florida coast this past week. It wasn't the planned next vacation we had in mind (for Fall), but we decided to pack as much as possible into our 3 days there.
We started our trip by traveling the hour to Gulfport, MS, to take in the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies and their Dolphin Experience. Miss Grace has been a fanatic for all things dolphin since the movie Dolphin Tale came out. So I decided to start a with a basic dolphin experience, to see how she did (and to save some money!).
|Courtesy of IMMS|
IMMS is a non-profit organization established in 1984 for the purposes of public education, conservation, and research on marine mammals, in the wild, and under human care. IMMS has been an active participant of the National Stranding Network since its inception, and is the premier stranding organization in the Mississippi-Louisiana-Alabama region of the Gulf Coast, with the capability and expertise, to care for sick and injured marine mammals. IMMS has provided funding and facilities to graduate students in order to conduct their research, as well as developing and supervising a marine mammal veterinary preceptorship program for final year veterinary students. Research at IMMS covers a broad range of scientific disciplines including population dynamics, underwater acoustics, health, genetics, microbiology, endocrinology, behavior, biomagnetism and ecology.Together with its scientific collaborators, IMMS hopes to make a significant impact on the health and well-being of dolphins in the Mississippi Sound and adjacent waters of the Northern Gulf of Mexico.
The basic tour at IMMS is $12 for adults and $10 for kids (ages 3-12). You get an almost 3 hour tour that encompasses reptiles, mammals, birds and the aforementioned dolphins! Let me show you what it encompasses;
Our tour started out with a slide show about sea turtles, and the IMMS rescue and recovery operations, to help sea turtles. We also learned the differences between the turtles and got to see just HOW powerful (and big) Leatherback turtles jaws are. That is a dolphin jaw above- can you guess HOW many teeth they have? Typically between 80-100 for an adult! Who knew?
Next up was a great bird show, featuring a Blue Macaw. While not native to the area, many are brought in as pets, and IMMS uses their Amazon Green Parrot, Pink Parrot, the Macaw, and Cockatoo, to teach about responsible ownership and care. All the parents were 'no bird' after hearing how the Macaws pretty much stay as inquisitive, destructive 2-3 yr old children, all their lives, which can be 60-80 years! Can you imagine??? That's Katherine Burton, above, who is an IMMS Marine Mammal Trainer, as well as a Rescue and Rehab specialist!
The IMMS museum is actually open to the public, as part of the gift shop area, and features exhibits n Hurricane Katrina, the DeepWater Horizon Oil Spill, Dolphin recovery, Gulf restoration and how litter affects the water and habitats. All in all, it's VERY informative, and the hands on features really get kids involved in learning.
As part of the tour, the kids (and 'kids at heart', aka the adults), get to dig for fossils, aka Shark teeth! the kids would have been happy doing this all day (some of the adults too!). Did you know that shark teeth get replaced ALL of their lives? Some sharks can loose up to 30,000 teeth! WOW! Miss Grace found a Sand Tiger tooth and I found a Mackerel shark tooth.
I was impressed that they had the fact sheets already made, so they could just figure out which tooth you found (they had a chart) you found, and tape it to the correct sheet. The kids were all thrilled at being able to tell other people about the sharks their tooth had come from! it's a great hands on activity, that gets the kids really interested in finding out more about different sharks!
Next up was the tide pool area. This room features a very large tidal pool filled with Cownose Rays,a large Horsehoe crab and a small Shark (did any of the fossil teeth come from him?).
With it's large area, everyone was able to find a spot and stay and touch the rays and the shark. Smaller ponds featured blue crabs, starfish and horseshoe crabs. They have a two finger touch rule in case you were wondering about the pix- this keeps people from grabbing at the animals and from freaking the animals out. You also have to do a surgical wash before even putting your arm in the tanks- yes, the animals come first!
Lining the walls were tanks featuring native fish to the Gulf area, as well as reptiles, including a small alligator and sea turtle. I'm not sure who had more fun in this room- the adults were just as transfixed as the kids!
The dolphin show runs the same time as the dolphin encounters. If you choose an encounter, you attend a 5 minute review/rule session, then go out on your respective dock for your encounter. The rest of the tour goes to two different seating areas, and get to watch the dolphins being put thru their different natural maneuvers. For those who select the basic encounter, they are part of the show-as their commands send the 3 dolphins out into the pool to perform them. It was wonderful to see that the actions the dolphins were doing were all natural- they are the same moves they do naturally in the wild, like the one below(as we got to see on Friday morning!).
I'll be sharing a post tomorrow about Miss Grace's Dolphin encounter, due to the amount of photos I want to share! But I have to say that in talking with fellow tourists over the next 3 days, who attended encounters at the other Gulf Coast aquarium, the IMMS encounters are more hands on and you are MUCH closer to the dolphins, making for a better experience, at a lower cost. Something to consider, especially if you are paying for more than 1 kid to take part!
Ending out our tour was the Sea Lion show. Yes, NOT a Gulf Coast species, but the sea lion was a rescue animal that would not stay in the wild, off the California coast. They had quite a few, and they were sent out to learning centers to help educate the public about these adorable animals. The show was quite informative and the kids all were enthralled.
Our tour literally ended right before an afternoon monsoon started,so we were happy to spend some mooe time in the museum and gift shop!
All the staff at IMMS, from volunteers to trainers, are informative and great with kids- they are happy to answer any, and all, questions the kids have!
I had to smile, when we got to the beach the next morning,and the first thing Miss Grace did was go on garbage hunt, to 'protect the wildlife'! Yup- lessons learned. Thanks IMMS! Seriously, I think she learned MORE in her 4 hours at IMMS than she has in her bi-annual (at least) visits to the NOLA Aquarium, due to the hands on approach that IMMS has!
You can book your tour and Dolphin Encounters online at IMMS, when you click the Book It button, all the possibilities will appear, and you can select the ones you wish. You can book your tours and encounters all at the same time. Another fun activity they offer is 'Dozing with Dolphins', which was designed by an Eagle Scout, and allows special behind the scenes fun, as well as an overnight stay at the facilities! There is also a 3 hour Job Shadow program for teens, who might be interested in a career in marine biology! They even have Summer Camps! And to be honest, I'm seriously considering hosting Miss Grace's next birthday party there, as the price and experience is really great, and you know your money is going to help support animals in their natural environment!
Be warned, Summer is BUSY season and everything books up quickly, but the system will show you what is available. IF you are attending the tour, then adults do NOT have to pay for the separate attendee fee, to take pictures of their child on a dolphin encounter.
We really can't recommend IMMS enough, if your kids are interested in animals and sea creatures- they will learn SO much, and it is a superb value! So if you haven't been, be sure to add it to your list of things to do before Summer ends, or during the next school vacation period!