As a young child on a cow farm in rural Marshall County, Dr. Holley Muraco grew up with a passion for everything that creeps or crawls.
And that childhood passion is what led Dr. Muraco, a world-renowned dolphin expert, to a career traveling the world to research marine animals, and eventually return to Mississippi where she’s inspiring the next generation of marine researchers as a director of research for the Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport.
“Every time I take the boat out into the Sound, I just can’t believe how many dolphins there are,” Muraco said. “We just need to understand them, and we need to continue to provide them with good habitats.”
The Mississippi Sound is a 113-square-mile saltwater playground for marine life, and surprisingly, very little research has been done on some of its main inhabitants, wild bottlenose dolphins. Therefore, Dr. Muraco’s current passion is building an environmental, behavioral-based ecology program to study Mississippi’s marine life.
And it’s a path she never actually intended to end up on.
Most kids with a wide-eyed passion for animals become veterinarians and that wasn’t a far stretch for a girl raised on a rustic Mississippi cow farm in the small town of Potts Camp.
She attended Mississippi State University with dairy science as her major and was told it would look good on her application to veterinarian school if she had experience with animals other than just cows and horses. She applied for a dolphin research internship at Walt Disney World and much to her surprise was accepted.
“And I still, to this day, can’t tell you why they thought a dairy science major from Mississippi would be a really good marine biology intern,” Muraco recounted.
She was one of six interns that spent six months at Disney World’s EPCOT working alongside the theme park’s biologists with dolphins, manatees, sharks, and other marine animals.
It was that internship that shifted her career focus and she graduated from MSU in 1998, earning a Bachelor of Science in Biology. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in Animal Physiology with a focus on bottlenose dolphins from MSU.
She also spent years traveling and researching marine life and lived and worked in Orlando, Florida as a trainer at Sea World and Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. Muraco has also lived and worked in Las Vegas, Nevada; Cancun, Mexico; Napa, California; and Guangzhou, China.
During her time in California, she conducted research with walruses, and at one point the British Broadcasting News Corporation sent a production crew to interview her for a documentary. The one-hour special, “Walrus: Two Tonne Tusker,” was released in 2013 as part of the “Natural World” series and featured Muraco living with various Native American tribes in Alaska and studying wild walruses in the Arctic.
But as a child, Muraco never imagined the passion she developed for animals growing up on an agrarian cow farm would eventually lead her to research aquatic life and eventually lead to building programs that allow students opportunities to experience marine life in her home state of Mississippi.
“This is one of a handful of places on the entire planet that’s home to this many dolphins,” she said.
Photos are courtesy of Dr. Holley Muraco