GULFPORT, Miss. — Looking for a fun outing that gives both kids and adults the chance to learn about ocean wildlife and conservation? Look no farther than Gulfport's Institute for Marine Mammal Studies.
IMMS is a nonprofit organization first established in 1984. Its Center for Marine Education and Research provides students with on-site educational programs and gives opportunities for research and advancement to institutions of higher learning.
Most importantly, IMMS is about the "three Rs": rescue, rehabilitation and release of marine mammals and turtles from the coastal areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, said Mike Mashburn, senior marine educator.
Educating the public
The CMER is open to visitors through the public tour program, which engages guests in fun, hands-on learning experiences designed to help them understand and appreciate the variety of species living in the Gulf Coast area.
On the tour, staff member Heath Crawford introduces the audience to Poppy, a cockatoo. She performs a variety of tricks, including picking up trash and placing it in a recycle bin and playing basketball. He then teaches guests about the cockatoo, including threats to its habitat.
"Help us spread the message of conservation," he told guests. "We hope you take the message with you."
Mashburn educates the audience on the types of sea turtles and dolphins, then shows specimens of baby sea turtles and lets guests touch Cortez, a Mexican milk snake.
Next on the tour comes the interactive museum, which includes a touch pool with stingrays, sharks, horseshoe crabs, fish, blue crabs, sea stars, and sea urchins. Guests also will find a shark tooth in the fossil dig to keep as a souvenir.
Perhaps the highlight of the tour is the dolphin presentation, where guests see bottlenose dolphins Bo and Buster work with their trainers and interact with guests.
For an additional fee, guests may participate in the dolphin interaction programs.
Guests will get in the dolphin pool and feed, touch and request different behaviors from a resident dolphin.
Or you might choose to try a dolphin encounter program in which you meet a dolphin face-to-face from the dock of the dolphin habitat.
Science with an impact
IMMS welcomes school groups and offers graduate students a place to conduct their research.
With its advanced veterinary hospital and facilities for providing care to dolphins in every stage of rehabilitation, it also has developed and supervised a marine mammal veterinary preceptorship program for final year veterinary students.
Together with its scientific collaborators, IMMS hopes to make a significant impact on the health and well-being of dolphins in the Mississippi Sound and Northern Gulf of Mexico.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, IMMS used the Marine Life facilities in Gulfport.
Mashburn said they are looking forward to opening a new Ocean Expo Aquarium & Learning Center in D'Iberville around 2015, complete with a dolphin and sea life lagoon, interactive exhibits and eco tours.
"We want to get kids excited about learning about science," he said.
IMMS is at 10801 Dolphin Lane in Gulfport. Reservations are required for facility tours and dolphin programs.