Friday, October 28, 2005

Dolphins Training

The dolphin is an animal that seeks "friendship for no advantage," according to the Greek philosopher Plutarch. But that's not necessarily true at the Texas State Aquarium.

Sundance, an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, responds to a command during the 'Dolphin Trainer for a Day' at Texas State Aquarium.

Bottlenose dolphin Kimo is engaged by reporter Brian Chasnoff during his exposure to the mammal as he participates in the 'Dolphin Trainer for a Day' program.

If you go

Getting there: Take I-37 South for 142 miles. In Corpus Christi, merge onto U.S. 181 North and take the Corpus Christi Beach exit. Follow the road's curve and make a right on Burleson Street. Go to the first stop sign and make another right on Surfside Boulevard. Keep going until you see the blue Texas State Aquarium sign. There are two parking lots in front of the Aquarium, 2710 N. Shoreline Blvd.Lodging: The Radisson Beach Hotel, at 3200 Surfside Blvd., is a five-minute walk from the aquarium. For reservations, call (800) 242-5814 or (361) 883-9700. Visit the Web site at www.radisson. com/corpuschristitx.

Dolphin trainer: The program costs $250 and is available four days a week: Monday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It lasts from 7:45 a.m. until noon. Participants prepare for and take part in a dolphin presentation, assist in feeding the dolphins, learn training methods and receive a 'Trainer for a Day' T-shirt and certificate. Participants must be at least 13 years of age, be in good physical shape and know how to swim. Nonslippery, closed-toe shoes and pants or shorts are required. Wear clothing you do not mind getting wet or dirty.More information: Find out more about the dolphin-training program at

Sundance, a dolphin on loan to Texas State Aquarium from the Indianapolis zoo, shows curiosity during a break in training.

A dolphin trainer at the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi leads Sundance around the tank during a performance. Like Kimo, Sundance was born in captivity.

The grounds here are teeming with advantage, and it all smells like raw fish.

Herring and capelin, to be exact, and they're all piled in giant sinks beside a man-made tank of chlorinated water where two friendly dolphins live and perform tricks, but only if you feed them raw fish.

Which is exactly why I traveled that day to the aquarium on the shores of Corpus Christi Beach.
A "Dolphin Trainer for a Day" program brochure promised to bring me into the fold for a mere $250. "You can be a dolphin trainer," the brochure assured me. Another brochure urged me to "examine the mystical connection that seems to exist between dolphins and humans."

Indeed, Plutarch was not alone in his enchantment with our aquatic cousins. For thousands of years, humans have fostered a wide-eyed awe for dolphins, venerating them as playful, gentle and highly intelligent creatures.

Tales surfaced as early as 400 B.C. of dolphins rescuing sailors and spiriting them to shore. In 1996, dolphins reportedly rescued a man in the Red Sea who had been attacked by a shark, encircling him to ward off Jaws until his companions could pull him to safety.

Beyond their purely practical use as protectors from drowning or mutilation, dolphins have been said to impart spiritual healing to those who share their waters — hence their purported "mystical" properties.

Reporting to my class at the aquarium with such lore bubbling in my head, I opted to cast off my own cynicism about dolphins living in captivity. Frankly, I figured, I could use a new friend, and lord knows a little spiritual healing wouldn't hurt either.

But cynicism, it turned out, doesn't cast off so easily.

It's not that the dolphins weren't enchanting. They won me over the moment I arrived at Dolphin Bay, a tank of aqua-blue water that overlooks the edge of the ship channel leading in from Corpus Christi Bay.

Sundance and Kimo, two male Atlantic bottlenose dolphins on loan from the Indianapolis Zoo, greeted me with permanent grins and ethereal clicks and whistles. Sundance wiggled his flippers when I lay on the ground to tickle his belly, and every time I strolled past the tank, Kimo would pop his sleek blue head from beneath the water and survey me with one steadied black eye.

"He likes you," said Emma Salinas, a staff dolphin trainer.

I wondered: Does he react to everyone like that?

"Some people he does, some people he doesn't."

A brotherly love filled my breast. After all, the dolphins and I weren't all that different.
As mammals, they had been born live, breathed air and once suckled milk from their mamas. Dolphins are even born with a temporary beard, I was told. And they are the only mammals other than human beings that engage in sex for pleasure.

Maybe dolphins are highly intelligent after all.

As I prepared to enter the training facility behind the tank, I looked out over the harbor and watched a small shrimping boat purr beneath the Harbor Bridge. Sometimes wild dolphins from the gulf glide alongside the boats, Salinas said. We continued inside, but it was too late, the division had been set.

Caged versus wild.

Imprisoned versus free.

Herring and capelin instead of catfish and calamari: two seafood favorites of gulf-swimming dolphins.

Kimo and Sundance were both born in captivity. Now, at 21 years of age, they were about halfway through their life spans, which have consisted primarily of slurping down a guaranteed supply of fish and performing tricks for wide-eyed admirers on a daily basis.

Did I still have a problem with that? I wasn't sure. After all, surely there are benefits to living in a fully catered ocean resort.

"We are very, very careful with these dolphins," Salinas told me. I spent most of the remaining half-day learning just how careful indeed.

The tank's chlorine level is tested three times a day to ensure the dolphins don't get sick. Each dolphin's intake of fish is measured meticulously against its weight so trainers can provide a proper diet. Multivitamins are stuffed regularly into the capelin. Trainers routinely brush the dolphins' sharp, conical teeth.

And predators? In an immaculate and isolated water tank, there aren't any.

But is something not lost as well? In the wild, a dolphin can hold its breath for up to 15 minutes, a skill that becomes useful during naptime. As captive creatures, though, Kimo and Sundance are only able to stay under for eight minutes. Has captivity dulled their natural instincts?

Tank-life certainly has increased their obedience. I easily administered a mock blood test with a plastic plunger on the underside of Kimo's tail, which the dolphin presented after a mere flash of my hand.

I then went inside the training facility to learn via a power-point presentation why the command had worked so well.

It's called operant conditioning, and it works like a charm.

The simple idea behind this psychological model is that the likelihood of a behavior is increased or decreased depending on the consequences that follow, and it applies just as well to your 3-year-old child as your bottlenose dolphin. When you wave your left hand and the subject waves his left flipper, give him a fish. When you wave your left hand and the subject waves his right flipper: sorry, no fish. Eventually, the subject will learn.

And negative reinforcement doesn't work, I was told. In the case of disobedience, the best response is just to ignore and then refocus.

Finally, I was asked to put what I had learned to the test, but not yet with a dolphin. For practice, I would train Sunshine, a lustrous and endangered citron cockatoo from the Solomon Islands. Of course, Sunshine already had been trained, which didn't stop it from defecating on the floor and squawking irritably at my efforts. This did not bode well for my upcoming performance.

Outside, a sizable audience of aquarium visitors already had gathered in seats around the tank, awaiting my debut as an instant trainer. I rolled up my pants and waded knee-deep into the water, my instructor, Salinas, at my side. I felt fairly prepared, well-coached in the series of hand gestures that the dolphins recognize without fail.

Sundance performed like the pro he has become, wiggling his flippers and sliding toward me on his belly with great alacrity despite my awkward commands.

After the audience had dispersed, I got a little extra treat myself: a personal training session with Kimo, the other dolphin.

I extended a pole out in front of me, and Kimo leapt over it more than 6 feet in the air. I brushed my fingers forward, and Kimo flipped over backward, soaking me with his tail.

When we were finished with the session, Salinas insisted I kiss Kimo, so I clutched the blubber that was his chin and planted one on his wide, wet mouth. Then, of course, I gave him a fish. Having swallowed his reward, Kimo abruptly dunked his head underwater. I wondered, was that normal behavior? Or was he trying to wash off my human germs?

Parting was such sweet enigma. I wondered just how advantageous was Kimo's friendship, how genuine our interactions. Does a dolphin lose its "mystical" nature when confined to a chlorinated tank?

"They're not robots," Salinas insisted, explaining that sometimes the dolphins refuse to perform, like underwater divas.

But if we were to meet in the wild, with Kimo swimming free and me floundering in the sea foam, I still couldn't be sure if he would carry me ashore or leave me for the sharks.

Besides, as Douglas Adams explained in his "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," our aquatic cousins are destined to abandon us in the earth's final moments. "So long, and thanks for all the fish" indeed.

Returning to the hotel, I did not feel spiritually healed, just wet and reeking of herring. But I had interacted with a beautiful creature, and that alone seemed of great value.

In the end, I could just choose to believe Kimo and Sundance are genuinely happy to live apart from their natural environment, and my newfound friends love me unconditionally and not for my raw fish.

Because of our mystical connection, of course.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"