Everything to Know About Dolphins in Key West

Key West’s waters are teeming with dolphins. Nothing compares to the trill of seeing these friendly, playful creatures frolic in the wild. Whether it’s on a dolphin watching excursion, a snorkel trip out to the reef or a sunset sail through the harbor, there’s always a chance of spotting a pod of dolphins surfing through the wake or jumping out of the water near the bow. You can also learn more about dolphins and their Key West habitat by visiting the Key West Aquarium. Read on for some fun facts about dolphins in Key West.

Dolphin are closely related to whales and porpoises

Dolphins are a part of the Cetacea family and are closely related to whales and porpoises. There are five families of dolphins containing countless dolphin species, including the common dolphin, spotted dolphin, Commerson’s dolphin and dusky dolphin, amongst others.

You’ll find bottlenose dolphins in Key West

Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are the most common dolphins found in Key West. They’re characterized by dark grey backsides and light grey bellies with a long snout, blowhole, flippers and a tail. Adults can grow to be 6 to 13-feet long.

In the wild, the bottlenose dolphin can reach speeds of over 18 miles an hour. About two-three times a minute they surface to breathe. Bottlenose dolphins tend to travel in pods and communicate with each other by squeaks and whistles. Pods have been known to come to the aid of an injured dolphin and help it to the surface.

Bottlenose dolphins track their prey through the use of echolocation– they can make up to 1,000 clicking noises per second. These clicks travel underwater until they encounter objects, and bounce back to the sender. This reveals the location, size, and shape of their prey.

Though they are known to eat shrimp and squid, the Dolphins’ main target is often a bottom-dwelling fish.

Dolphins travel in pods

If you spot a dolphin at sea, chances are there are more where he came from. They typically travel in groups, known as pods, of 10-30 and sometimes even thousands. It’s also common to see a mother dolphin with smaller juvenile dolphins and also to catch dolphins mating in the wild.

Bottle nose dolphin above the water

Dolphins use echolocation, similar to sonar

They search for their prey using echolocation, which is similar to sonar, emitting clicking noises and listening for the echo to determine what’s around them and how big it is. They also forage for fish as a team or hunt for prey individually.

Dolphins communicate with each other

Dolphins communicate with each other through sounds like clicks and squeaks using their blowhole and also by slapping their fins on the water.

Sharks are their predators

Large shark species, like tiger sharks, bull sharks and great whites are dolphin’s natural predators. However, the dolphin isn’t completely at their mercy. They defend themselves by charging at their predators. If they’re with their pod, dolphins can even mob sharks and turn their predator into prey.

Key West has a Dolphin Playground

There’s an area in Key West’s shallow backcountry that’s an excellent feeding and breeding ground for dolphins. The environment is ideal because of its consistent depth of about 10-feet and the surrounding mangroves, which are a haven for the juvenile fish that they feed on. Here, they’ll engage in a feeding technique known as mud plume feeding. They work as a team in the shallow sea grass beds creating a U-shaped plume of mud in the water column and then darting through it to capture the fish they’ve disturbed.

This area in Key West is known as the Dolphin Playground because you’re practically guaranteed to spot a dolphin there. If you’re on a dolphin watching tour, chances are you’ll be visiting this area.


Bottle nose dolphin in water


Dolphins are mammals

Unlike many other marine animals, dolphins are mammals, which means they require oxygen to survive and they’re warm blooded.

Dolphins are intelligent

Dolphins are highly intelligent with a large brain to body mass ratio second only to humans and similar to apes. This level of intelligence is a big reason why there’s been so much interaction between dolphins and humans. They have the ability to mimic, use artificial language, categorize objects and recognize themselves. Their emotional intelligence also makes them playful when interacting with humans and each other.

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