May 9, 2018

Theresa Java/Free Press
Deena and Pete Hoagland, founders of Island Dolphin Care, commit themselves to helping families with special needs, which includes the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami group. 

Theresa Java/Free Press Deena and Pete Hoagland, founders of Island Dolphin Care, commit themselves to helping families with special needs, which includes the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami group. 

KEY LARGO — Yes, dolphins do sleep, which shouldn’t be surprising since, as adults, they scarf up between 17 and 35 pounds of fish a day. 

These are just a few of the facts about dolphins that may be learned during a tour of Island Dolphin Care, the Key Largo-based not-for-profit organization that provides dolphin assisted therapy programs for special needs children and adults.

IDC’s tours offer hands-on learning about Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and other marine animals through its touch tanks and informative placards.

Shaded seats and benches around the lagoon give visitors a chance to observe eight dolphins: Sarah, Bella, Fiji, Grace, Lotus, Tashi, Squirt and her 3-year old baby, Dalai. A dolphin assisted therapy session may be going on depending on the day’s schedule.

IDC customizes programs for individuals and families with special needs. Visits may last anywhere from a half-day to its five-day program or extend beyond that.

Deena Hoagland founded the facility in 1997 after utilizing dolphin therapy to successfully rehabilitate her son who had suffered a massive stroke stemming from a heart defect when he was 3 years old. 

Hoagland believes encounters with dolphins provide motivation for people to reach new goals.

“Each session is different and addresses a different therapeutic need. Each special need is just as important as any other one. Our programs help with cancer, physical and mental disabilities, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said while being followed by the pod. “They’re my babies, and they watch me.”

The therapy programs that IDC offers are designed to assist with sensory integration, fine and gross motor skills, language, communication, self-esteem and organizational skills.

“Every day we try to do something here,” Hoagland said of helping people accomplish physical goals. “We try to help as much as we can.”

As for Hoagland’s goal, which is to raise more funds to run operations and provide financial assistance to families who visit, she says it’s challenging.

“We aren’t affiliated with any other dolphin program and we are a not-for-profit. We are supported through charitable donations, foundations, grants and through Amazon Smile,” she said.

There is an $18 donation fee to tour IDC and reservations are recommended so that staff can be available.

Donations are used to offset operational expenses and recover from the $500,000 in damages that occurred during Hurricane Irma that destroyed two elevators, the docks, fencing, chickee hut and more.


A big visit

Island Dolphin Care recently hosted a visit from 20 children from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami. For many, it was their first time seeing a live dolphin and learning about them despite living on a peninsula.

Most of the children come from disadvantaged homes where the family’s priorities aren’t recreational boating.

“This was the first opportunity that 90 percent of the kids in the program to see a real live dolphin,” said Annie Jones, BBBS marketing coordinator. “It’s not a normal thing for kids. They’re families who just don’t have the wherewithal.”

The “littles,” accompanied by their “bigs,” were broken up into four groups to meet and greet the eight dolphins that reside at IDC. They were able to dangle their legs near the water and pet the dolphins.

“It was just ridiculous,” said Michelle Wolfe of the fun that the kids had. Her husband Richard, an attorney, has been involved with BBBS for 37 years and started out as a little and went on to become a mentor. He still keeps in touch with his first little.

The Wolfes are proponents of Island Dolphin Care and Michelle is moved by its history.

“There are a lot of different kinds of therapy and everyone responds to each therapy differently, and just look at him,” Michelle said pointing to Hoagland’s son, Joe, who is a grown man and part of the small staff that operates IDC.

“This is a wonderful place. My husband and I love it here and we wanted to be able to share it,” Michelle said.

Richard called Deena about bringing a BBBS group, and she said, “Let’s make it happen.”

During their visit, “the kids just squealed in delight,” Michelle said. “We have some great stories and memories made today. One little girl looked at me and said, ‘Don’t tell any of the other dolphins, but I like Sara the best.’”

Hoagland said that this was one of the larger groups that IDC has hosted, and she was thrilled with the turnout.

“This was a great group of kids,” she said.

Jones said she is coordinating another trip to IDC at the end of May.

The BBBS program provides mentorship services for more than 2,200 youths and work with more than 250 schools in Miami-Dade County, according to Jones. Between 80 to 86 percent of the students participating in the program improve academically, she said. 

“We will have 1,000 kids on the waitlist. We are constantly in a deficit for mentors. We try to be flexible with volunteering,” Jones said.

For more information on the program, visit

The program provided to BBBS was provided through the generous donations IDC receives. 

Island Dolphin Care is located 150 Lorelane Place in Key Largo. For more information about IDC, call 305-451-5884 or visit