The Largest Dolphin Population in the US Calls the Mississippi Gulf Coast Home

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There are plenty of vacation spots that will let you swim with the dolphins, but if you want to get up-close and personal with marine mammals the right way, your most ethical option is to do it at a facility that's actively working to help them. Luckily, there's such a facility near the largest population of bottlenose dolphins in the U.S. Welcome to the Mississippi Gulf Coast's Institute for Marine Mammal Studies.

Calm After the Storm

In the mid-1980s, the Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport, Mississippi was the place to go if you wanted to watch bottlenose dolphins in their element. But something was missing. To add a scientific edge to the entertainment, marine biologist Dr. Moby Solangi founded the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies (IMMS) in 1984 as a way to learn about and work for the conservation of the water-dwelling animals showcased at Marine Life and beyond. But in August 2005, disaster struck. Hurricane Katrina rocked the Gulf Coast, all but demolishing the oceanarium and forcing the evacuation of its marine residents. Luckily, the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies was able to build a new facility not long after the storm. Dr. Solangi and his team then spent the next decade fully rebuilding what they lost, bigger and better than before. In March 2018, they opened a brand-new educational facility called Ocean Adventures, which provides "a window on IMMS," as Solangi put it to the Sun Herald.

Today, families flock to the facility to get up close and personal with dolphins, sharks, stingrays, birds, and reptiles, including the world's most endangered sea turtle and an entire nursery of baby dolphins — but science remains at the center. "What we do is we bring nature close to the public and we highlight all the issues that are confronting our planet, specifically the Gulf of Mexico," says Dr. Solangi. That includes the fact that the agricultural and industrial waste flowing into the Gulf from the Mississippi River creates dead zones: regions where nothing grows for tens of thousands of miles.

"That's a pretty large chunk of aquatic environment that's taken away," Solangi says. "It's important for people to know what the challenges are and hopefully provide research and data so that we can make good decisions."

If I Could Talk to the Animals

But while you learn about threats to our environment and the ways they impact marine wildlife, you also get to meet, touch, feed, and even swim with some of nature's cutest cetaceans. Visitors can get a kiss from a sea lion, hand-feed a parakeet, and swim with the resident sharks and stingrays. "We use these animals as ambassadors," Dr. Solangi says. "When people can go swim with the dolphins ... you gain an appreciation of not only the animal but their habitat. During this process, we're able to give them a bit of an education on conservation methods. So I think it's helping to create better stewards and exposing people to appreciate nature and conserve it."

Visitors might come for the photo op, but they leave with a greater understanding of nature. "Dolphins are at the top of the food chain, and whatever happens to them represents what's going on in their environment," Dr. Solangi says. "A healthy dolphin population tells you it's a healthy environment."

If you want to get up-close and personal with the wildlife of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, you can visit the Ocean Adventures Marine Center and the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies Monday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission is $15 for adults and $13 for children 12 and under; encounters with dolphins and other animals are extra. For more information about planning a visit, head to www.imms.org, and check out GulfCoast.org for everything you need to plan your journey to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies
Written by Ashley Hamer June 19, 2018
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