GULFPORT -- Dolphin lovers at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies are flipping over their new stateof- the-art museum and research facility expected to open in the next few weeks.
IMMS President Dr. Moby Solangi, a marine biologist who spent more than two decades working with dolphins at Marine Life Oceanarium, said the new 12-acre Center for Marine Education and Research will open as soon as Harrison County officials can pave the entrance along the Industrial Seaway, just off Cowan-Lorraine Road.
"This is all cutting-edge stuff that we're doing here," Solangi said. "And obviously we're very excited about opening our new facility."
With more than 750,000 gallons of tank space, and a veterinary hospital and surgery center, Solangi said the facility will be unmatched by any other marine mammal research center along the Gulf of Mexico.
IMMS, a nonprofit group established in 1984, will use the facility to study and treat injured animals. Those that cannot be released back into the wild could eventually be housed at the nearby oceanariums or a future aquarium on the Coast.
It will be the first facility completely devoted to dolphin rescue and rehabilitation in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, and the only facility capable of caring for sick and injured marine mammals. In addition, IMMS will be able to rehabilitate sick and injured sea turtles.
The $7 million facility also includes a necropsy lab, a pump house for operating life-support systems, fish houses to store food and three pools capable of housing animals at any stage of rehabilitation.
In addition, the facility includes classrooms and laboratories, a museum and a 200-seat auditorium. IMMS officials hope to book numerous educational tours and school field trips.
Since 2006, IMMS has spread its message of conservation during more than 70 classroom visits to Coast schools and the institute also has rescued hundreds of stranded marine mammals and sea turtles in its 24- year history.
The institute's 2005 rescue of a pod of dolphins stranded in Mallini Bayou in Pass Christian made headlines.
However, that news was overshadowed a few months later when Katrina flattened the Marine Life Oceanarium, home to 17 bottlenose dolphins.
Eight trained dolphins were swept out to sea and after several days of unsuccessful searching, Solangi figured they were gone for good.
"Some of them had been born in captivity, so they had no idea how to find food," Solangi said. "It would be like someone dropping you in the jungle and telling you to survive on your own."
But on the morning of Sept. 10, 2005, the nation awoke to scenes playing out on most major television networks of the Coast dolphins splashing and playing in the Mississippi Sound. Biologists located the dolphins by performing aerial surveys from a NOAA Fisheries Service airplane.
The institute hopes to continue its rescue missions and research and educational work, but Solangi and the 17 staff members at the facility make no secret of what it will take to keep them going: Cash.
IMMS functions mostly off government grants, but a lot of its funding comes from individual donations.
The group is selling engraved bricks that will make up the front entrance to the new facility. Sponsorships of museum exhibits are for sale, along with T-shirts and other items sold at an online gift shop at IMMS.org.
In May state lawmakers approved a measure for IMMS license plates that features two dolphins flipping through the air, with a lighthouse in the background. At least $24 of the proceeds from each license plate will go directly to IMMS.
The facility will be a welcome addition to a city still knee-deep in Katrina recovery and to a Coast that has missed its sea lions and dolphins for more than three years.
By Ryan LaFontaine