Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Dolphin encounters will give you the adventure that you are looking for and more

When Hurricane Wilma flooded the Florida Keys last year, the lagoon pens at the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key were overwhelmed by the storm surge that rose over the highway, temporarily linking the Gulf with the Atlantic.

Here was a rare opportunity for the 16 captive dolphins at the center, and they made the most of it.
"Our stay-behind crew looked out they window at the height of the storm to see how the dolphins were dealing with it," said Mary Stella, media coordinator. "They were surfing the storm surge, having the time of their lives."

Every dolphin except a "teenaged" male named A.J. returned to his or her home pen when the water subsided.

"A.J.," said Stella dryly, "found his way into a pen with a couple of lady dolphins."
The Dolphin Research Center (DRC) was our first stop after Nellie and I registered for an afternoon "dolphin encounter" at Hawk's Cay Resort. (Our trip was prompted by helpful reader Mary Ann Sforza of Delray Beach, a veteran of six dolphin swims at Islamorada's Theater of the Sea, a bit north of the research center.) For less than $20, visitors are welcome to visit the center and watch any number of training, research and human encounter programs ongoing at the DRC just north of Marathon.

I had two questions before I got into the water with dolphins. Forget the amiable smile. These sea-going mammals are toothy carnivores.

Do they bite?

Are they stressed when land-lubbering strangers come to paw at them?

Yes, a wild dolphin might bite the fire out of you. Because dolphins are frisky and like to cavort around boats, people feed them. This is bad policy and illegal. If you go into the water with a dolphin expecting a handout, you might get bit or worse: Male dolphins are as randy as gibbons and if one makes a cross-species pass at you, you aren't going to like it.

Stella explains: "You do not want to be pinned to the ocean floor by a 500 pound dolphin who doesn't understand that you can't hold your breath for eight minutes like he can."

Freckles, bellybuttons and ice

As to my wondering whether trained dolphins are stressed by repeated contact, the answer seems to be that they thrive on it. As the media coordinator took Nellie and me down to a training session, we passed a pen by a boardwalk, and like magic, two handsome, bottle-nosed dolphins surfaced and rolled for a good look at the passersby. Stella greeted them cheerily, and they made cheerful enough clicking and chattering noises back.

"Dolphins are very curious," she said. "They want to know what's going on, and they check everybody out. If you ignore them, they will let you know it."

I noticed a canvas shade that seemed to be in place for the animals' benefit.
"Oh, yes, they burn easily and the shade protects them."

I mentioned the lovely pinkish bellies of the smaller animals. "They're born pink. The pink fades. Some have freckled bellies."

And, she noted, anticipating one of the most frequently asked questions, "Yes, they have bellybuttons."

A student trainer was heading for a training pen with a cooler of ice. I assumed there was fish in the cooler, and I was wrong.

"No, dolphins love ice," she explained. "They need fresh water. They get their fluids from their food. This is a concern because if a dolphin is sick and can't eat, they dehydrate. They love to eat ice for the fresh water. You can see over there (she pointed), they're intubating a dolphin right now — pouring fresh water directly down his throat."

Because dolphins, like whales, breathe through the top of their heads, they don't have a gag reflex and teaching them to accept water directly into their stomach is easy.

This, to me, was amazing. How, I asked, do you get a dolphin to submit to intubation?
The answer, Stella said, is training and trust. It's pretty clear that dolphins are highly intelligent and enjoy learning. Anything that is done to the dolphins, or for them, is strictly with the animal's permission.

"We are a research center and that means medical research," Stella said. "Dolphins cooperate because we teach by reward and praise." Clearly, when medical care is invasive (drawing blood, taking stool samples), the patient trusts that the discomfort or pain is for some good reason and the dolphin moves into position for the procedure.

We, along with a dozen other visitors, watched as trainers played a short-term memory game of "hide the alligator" with a young porpoise and an older companion. The alligator was a plush toy about a foot long. The trainer would first present the alligator to the student dolphin and then place it on top of one of three buckets, clearly in sight.

"Where's the alligator?"

The young dolphin would swim to the platform and nose the bucket supporting the toy. The question was repeated by placing the gator in a different bucket, this time with a bit of its tail hanging over the edge. Again he nosed the correct bucket.

"Now watch," Stella said. "The alligator will be hidden completely, and on cue, the dolphin will have to remember where it was p... Right!!!"

A whistle blast and much applause and cheering from trainers and onlookers tells the dolphin he performed exactly as requested. And he gets a piece of fish.

"Restaurant quality fish, every piece inspected for freshness," said Stella.

Before we left, the media coordinator escorted us to the platform where trainers were storing their gear. We were permitted to reach down in the water and stroke a dolphin that sidled over on request. The skin was amazingly delicate to the touch and smooth with just a suggestion of slickness.

It was time to go to our "swim-in" at Hawk's Cay, but the trainer said first the dolphins would go get Nellie a gift. A gift?

"Don't expect too much," Stella said. "We never know what it will be. It'll be something from the bottom of the lagoon — 25 or 30 feet down, probably a stone or a piece of seaweed. Whatever it is, make a fuss. Once a dolphin brought up a crab from the bottom, but when I hesitated because I couldn't avoid the claws, she got very huffy and swam away in disgust."

Both dolphins placed a strand of seaweed in her hand. "Oh, you shouldn't have," Nellie gushed.

T.L.C. dolphin-style

Later, at the resort, we were told we would get in the water with Hawk's Cay's eight dolphins. First we were fitted with wet-suit vests with enough buoyancy to float us in the lagoon. The dolphins, we were reminded, like performing and being touched if you approach them gently and take care to avoid eyes, and ear, mouth and breathing holes.

We went into the water four to a trainer and stood on a platform submerged about 4 feet. Here we waited as the dolphins were called by name by the trainer. We took turns stroking the mammals' sides and heads. For this we paid them by tossing, not placing, pieces of fish in their mouths and down their gullets.

"Ten to 15 pounds of fish a day per dolphin, depending on size," said our group leader. "We weigh the dolphins and measure out their food every day. This is a planned part of their diet."

Then we all played hug-the-dolphin, each animal consenting to swim over the platform and let us encircle him with our arms. Then we kissed the dolphin — no tongues. Are you a vinegar puss when a camera comes around? Hug a dolphin and glower no more.

After these 10-minute introductions, we gave the dolphins a break and then went into the water and by turns went off the platform to "swim." We spun in the water. Our dolphin spun a lot faster. We had a splash fight. You and a squad of beavers couldn't win a splash fight with a dolphin.

Then we played a game of "Can You Top This?"

I started by doing an underwater somersault and blowing bubbles.

My dolphin opponent then swam underwater at a speed of about 25 miles per hour, shot 20 feet into the air and turned a double flip, reentering the water with scarcely a ripple.

"OK, tie-breaker round," I said.

Later, on the four-hour drive home, Nellie and I kept trying to get a handle on the day's experience.

"That was really neat."

"They're amazing creatures."

"Do you think they really like us or they're just in it for the fish?"

"We've got to go back and take the granddaughter."

"I can't stop thinking about it."


"Amazing animals. Just amazing."

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"