Critical care pools such as the one pictured allow sick and injured dolphins and whales to be medically treated and provide a second chance at life. DPMMR/Contributed

For 35 years, Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder’s (DPMMR) rescue team has responded to sick and injured whales and dolphins in the Florida Keys. Unfortunately, over the last 10 years, the team lacked the long-term facilities to perform life-saving rehabilitation for animals that need extended care.

In the coming months, a new hospital at the former Latitude 25 building, at MM 82 in Islamorada, will serve marine mammals in need of critical care. 

One fundamental aspect of the new hospital is a 40-foot-diameter pool that’s large enough to facilitate long-term rehabilitation for many different marine mammal species. The pool will provide aquatic animals a proper rehabilitation habitat where experienced responders and veterinarians can medically treat critically ill marine mammals. Beyond the pool, the facility will support animal care areas, veterinary labs, office space and storage for DPMMR’s mobile Marine Mammal Response Unit. 

Historic Latitude 25 retail store to transform into new location for DPMMR’s Protect Center/Whale and Dolphin Hospital. DPMMR/Contributed

Art Cooper, DPMMR founder and primary responder, said the Keys once had a marine mammal hospital that enabled them to rehabilitate and release many wild mammal species. When DPMMR was founded in 2015, Cooper said its sole purpose was to fund and facilitate the rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals. 

“I’m thrilled that we’re going to be able to start giving significantly compromised animals a second chance at life again, and for the first time under the guise of DPMMR,” Cooper said. 

DPMMR covers the seas between Ocean Reef and the Dry Tortugas, and all the way to the Everglades National Park. The team has responded to nearly 700 marine mammals. For years, the team had no choice but to transport sick marine life to central Florida for medical care, or humanely euthanize dolphins that could have had a second chance at life if the rehab facilities existed. 

The hospital, which will be known as the “Protect Center,”  will act as a sister facility to the “Connect Center,” located in Key Largo and also operated by Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder. DPMMR’s motto is “Connect to Protect,” and its leaders say they are happy to have both parts of their mission represented at their two facilities. 

While the facility will be a working veterinary hospital at its core, the Protect Center will also serve as an education center complete with guided tours, a 3,000-square-foot museum themed around marine conservation, and retail space. 

Local officials celebrate the DPMMR’s Protect Center in Islamorada on April 4. DPMMR/Contributed

“We couldn’t be more excited to be in the heart of Islamorada,” said Hunter Kinney, director of fundraising, marketing and development for DPMMR. “The community in Islamorada has a strong environmental orientation, so it feels like the perfect location for the Florida Keys’ only dolphin and whale hospital.”

Kinney added that the DPMMR team is designing exhibits and a guided tour that will entertain and educate visitors. 

“Our goal is to become a ‘must-see’ stop for families and students visiting the Florida Keys so that we can share the story of whales, dolphins and their conservation,” he said. 

“Many people believe if they see a beached dolphin, they should assist by pushing it back out to sea,” said Nancy Cooper, president of DPMMR. “Unfortunately, that’s a likely death sentence for a sick or injured dolphin. We’re hoping to fill this gap of information and work directly with the public to create future generations of stewards for our oceans.” 

The Protect Center had a soft opening on April 5 . Many components of the facility are in the planning and development phases with hopes to have the dolphin intensive care unit completed over the summer and a guided tour open shortly thereafter. Additionally, the museum area is expected to take form over the next few months with an anticipated opening in summer 2023. 

Until then, Cooper says locals and visitors can stop into the Protect Center gift shop and information center. Starting on April 5, the Protect Center will be open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Visitors will be able to browse a curated collection of merchandise supporting development efforts of the dolphin intensive care unit, learn more about the future of the center, as well as make contributions toward the $300,000 fundraising campaign necessary to get the project off the ground and ready to save dolphins and whales. 

Cooper said DPMMR has been working toward the Protect Center for five years. 

“We began raising funds and awareness for a hospital in 2019, and a handful of the animals we have responded to since then would have been candidates for rehabilitation. It’s exhilarating to know we will soon be able to offer that care.” 

More information and updates on the project will be posted to DPMMR’s social media pages and on at Those interested in making a tax-deductible donation to help develop the dolphin intensive care unit can make donations by calling DPMMR at 305-453-4321 or online at

Those who encounter a marine mammal in distress should call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 888-404-FWCC (3922).