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Dancing with Dolphin

“Man is the dream of the dolphin,” Enigma sings. But after I’ve been swimming with dolphins myself, I would rather say that it’s the opposite for my account. Dolphins are the dream of man – of me… Dolphins have indeed become my dream!

This toucan's probably dreaming of flying too

Many people are dreaming about flying like a bird, but to swim like a dolphin must be just as good, if not even better – because of the unique close contact that the dolphins let us be a part of. To experience these beautiful, strong and friendly creatures up close was an adventure that is stuck in my heart like a wonderful memory. Like a magic dream. In Road Town at the island Tortola in The Caribbean there is a place where these dreams can come true!

Dolphin Discovery started here in Road Town in the year 2003 with 4 dolphins. In 2007 a male and a female was born, and in 2009 3 males was born into this world. In Mexico they have had Dolphin Discovery a lot longer (15 years), they have three other centers and one at Hawaii. The dolphin kids are being trained when they reach the ages of 3 to 6 months. Each dolphin has its personality, and just like humans some are easy to train while others needs a little longer time.

When I approached Dolphin Discovery and saw the enclosures where the dolphins were being kept, I was met by eager animals swimming around, jumping in the water, impatient about getting started playing and training. At least, so it seemed. Healthy, happy and well kept creatures. Along the pools by the entrance, you could see several big cages with different kind of parrots, even a couple of beautiful toucans.

In captivity dolphins can reach the age of 30-40 years, something beautiful Einstein (30) is a living proof of. His buddy, Al, is 20 years old. Swimming free in the ocean, it’s a harder world where most dolphins only reach the age of 15-20 years. By Dolphin Discovery, the dolphins are being kept in well shape by daily supervision, exercise and playing, the right diet and lots, lots of love and attention. Vitamins are being given and if necessary medications into the food: Fish. If you don’t like fish, you’re not a dolphin… Fish is also what is being used as a reward after performing one of the fantastic tricks – fish and cuddling and attention. In my eyes, every trick a dolphin does is a miracle, because I know that you can not force a dolphin to do anything.

The daily health checking routine contains among many things, to make the dolphin open its mouth so the veterinarian can touch the dolphins tongue and sniff his fingers, and checking the blow hole and the smell there, making the dolphin blow into his palm almost like a sneeze. The smell he wants is the smell of fish. While the veterinarian is working wit one dolphin, the rest of the animals in that pool are getting treats from a senior trainer, who also gives the right vitamins to the right dolphin.

Compared to a horse or a dog, you can’t hold a dolphin in a leash while you’re working with it. More obvious than any other animals, you might see this among the dolphins; you can’t force it to obey. If the dolphin doesn’t want to do what you want it to do, it won’t do it! Then it just swims away, not interested in you. And with this in mind, one might understand how fantastic it is to see the trainer give a signal with his hands, the dolphins throw themselves into the water and disappear under the surface, just to make a sudden jump high up in the air, doing a synchronized jump like it’s one dolphin with a mirror reflection jumping up from the water with all its grace and strength – because a dolphin IS strong!!! You have to be strong to lift a big, grown up man high up into the air by pushing the nose under the man’s feet and make him fly over the surface with half his body above the water!

Right now there are 27 people working at the Dolphin Discovery in Road Town, Tortola. 11 of these are senior trainers and one of them is the main veterinarian, Georgio. He has been here at the Caribbean center for 2 years, but before this he was working with the dolphins in Mexico. Besides checking the right smell on the dolphins tongue and blow hole, he also feels that the skin is okay according to the dolphins ages and activity. A dolphin changes the outside layer once every second hour. The skin disappears as powder while they are swimming. The reason the dolphins are given vitamins is that live fish contents more vitamins then dead and frozen fish, so they need to supply the diet with vitamins. They are also getting different types of fish (herring, squids…) because each type of fish contents different kind of vitamins and minerals. Fish is not just fish… The fish that Dolphin Discovery are buying for food and treats are being bred up north in America or in Canada. Georgio also notices if there are any new marks or browses after little fights or rough play with the mates, he notices how they swim and if the appetite is normal, and if the behavior is different than usual. Every trainer, apprentice or the others among the staff at Dolphin Discovery will notice if a dolphin gets an abnormal behavior that shows that something is wrong. They know how a normal dolphin acts. Anything discovered will be written down, so there is no doubt that the dolphins are being taken good care of here.

A dolphin eats about 15-25 pounds of fish every day, 10 % of its own body weight depending on sex, age, if the dolphin is pregnant or nursing a baby… Dolphins swim to keep warm and this makes them burn a lot of calories every day. That’s why they constantly need a refill of energy by eating. This also makes food an effective way to reward the dolphins during training.

Positive behavior is being rewarded, but if the dolphin is behaving in a way that is unwanted or does something not accepted, the trainer just leaves the pool. Negative behavior is with other words ignored. Since dolphins likes contact and are so playful, they understand very fast the difference between positive and negative behavior. To train dolphins has not been going on for so many years, compared to training horses or dogs. The main mantra is constantly to make training fun for the dolphins and that the trainer shall grab the dolphin’s attention in a positive way. That’s how it’s being done all from the start when the kids are being trained. The main thing then is to play with the dolphins and make them used to paying attention to the humans and getting use having them around. It’s also no doubt about that dolphins sees the difference between hard and rough play with their own kind, versa playing with “weak” human beings, who can’t cope with that kind of playing among dolphins. The head manager at Dolphin Discovery in Road Town, Carlos Guerrero also believes that the dolphins can see the difference between each trainer. He used to train dolphins himself. And they absolutely can tell the difference between an apprentice and a senior trainer. The reason can be that an apprentice doesn’t have the same self confidence as a senior trainer, compared to an unsecure apprentice without the routine.

The qualifications for becoming a dolphin trainer at Dolphin Discovery is not much more than having the interest of the animals and being willing to climb the ladder everybody has to climb when they start to work here. You start of course at the bottom as an apprentice and in time you get more and more training yourself, handling the dolphins – here they train their own trainers. Dolphin Discovery started 15 years ago in Mexico and since they let the staff rotate on the different divisions, there are most Mexican trainers in Road Town. Of course it’s great if you have other qualifications beside the urge of working and cooperating with animals, but all in all everybody can learn how to train dolphins. Patience is very important no matter what kind of animal you train and everybody – both apprentices and trainers – are being watched over by the veterinarian and other senior trainers witch have control with the daily routines, from handling the food to handling the dolphins.

All together, dolphins are delightful and peaceful creators, but they are also animals with their instincts and sometimes it happens that two males are starting to fight so the trainers have to separate them – of course after the argument is over. Trying to separate two dolphins in the middle of an argument is not too smart since we’re talking about very strong animals. It doesn’t work like separating two boxers in a ring where they are being told to go to each corner. Even when they are playing it happens that new browses and cuts appears, not to mention if one male is in one pool and is very displeased about it, when there is a tempting female in the pool next to him, swimming around teasing him. Many new marks in the skin comes out of frustrated lust… but all in all dolphins are happy animals and the only reason they are jumping high in the air to land with their side hard in the water making a huge splash, is because they simply love to play.

They can’t smell anything, they don’t have that sense. But they have the sonar that works by the blow hole and a blob of jello substance in the forehead. A dolphin can send out such strong signals, it can knock a fish unconscious, that way it’s easier to get the pray instead of swimming fast to catch the food.

Dolphins are animals living in herds and every herd animal has a hierarchy. Dolphin Discovery has 19 dolphins where two of the males are very dominant and they are never put together. When the young dolphins are old enough, they are being put together with the others and most of the time they find their place in the herd right away, or after some discussion only using sound signals. The sound and noise you hear from a dolphin is actually coming form the blow hole. Since these dolphins are in captivity and can not fight naturally about their place in the herd, the trainers don’t only train the dolphins but they also have to train their natural behavior, so the dolphins go against their own natural instinct sometimes. In other words they have to control the natural behavior of the dolphins, preventing them from being aggressive to the baby dolphins and kids, and this is the reason why dominant males are never put together with dolphin babies or young dolphins. The trainers also have to make sure that a dolphin with a strong personality is not being put together with a dolphin with a weak personality. Some of the senior trainers are mainly working with the baby dolphins, because they are trained watching the development in the training of the youngsters. Our veterinarian is very good and he also teaches the young veterinarians in examine the dolphins.

According to the veterinarian, Georgio, there is a difference in the personality of male dolphins and female dolphins. The females seem to be a little more careful, especially when it comes to the guests who want swim with them. The males seem to be more nonchalant like they are living with the attitude “So you wanna touch my fin? Ooookaaaaay, what eveeeer…” So maybe the dolphins are more like humans than we like to admit, sometimes…

The dolphins on Dolphin Discovery in Road Town are the breed Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, but there are several other breeds on the other departments. They even have manatees in the same program where you can swim with them. They may not be as elegant as dolphins, but the peaceful animals absolutely have their own personal beauty.

Dolphins are born without teeth. They have whiskers to help them find the mothers nipples. Dolphins do not come in season, they can mate all year around. Just as human beings, they gladly have sex just for the pleasure and not only for making offspring – it’s even proven gay relationships among dolphins. Since they can mate all year around, Dolphin Discovery have to control the reproduction, because the babies can not be taken out of the water the first weeks after being born. If a hurricane hits the area, all the dolphins have to be removed from their pools and brought into safety pools and the staff have to carry them one by one in special bags. They can’t do this if the baby is too young so the birth control and mating control is for the safety of the dolphins. When the baby is being born, it’s over one meter long but the birth is pretty easy for the mother because dolphins doesn’t have the bones in the hip like humans have, that could complicate the birth.

As already mentioned, every dolphin has their own personality and Georgio has learned the different dolphins out of behavior and looks. Some dolphins are smarter then others and learns very fast – even by looking at other dolphins. Other dolphins might need a little longer before they learn something new and the most important thing for making them learn is to avoid boredom and routines. That makes the dolphins loose their interest.

Sales manager Shakti Segura compares the dolphins with children. They are just as intelligent as children and just like kids dolphins in captivity have to be kept in activity all day long with new things all the time so they won’t become depressive. For a trainer this is a very physical job, exhausting sometimes. You have to be high and low to activate the dolphins, making sure they won’t be bored. Variation is very important and we write down everything we do to make sure that no day is like the several previous days. Shakti had the choice between working at a hospital for horses or working with dolphins. Out of how happy she is at Dolphin Discovery, we think she made the right choice. It is certain that working at Dolphin Discovery is not an everyday job, either you train the dolphins, assists by filming and taking pictures of the guests while the swim with the dolphins or you are an apprentice ready to climb the ladder up to becoming a senior trainer.

There are three different programs you can take part of if you want to swim with dolphins, and any age can find a program that suits them – also little kids. The only restriction is for pregnant women, they can not get into the pool, this is for their own safety. The one I tried was the biggest one, The Dolphin Royal Swim. And for my account it was absolutely worth the prize, because I know that it’s well skilled trainers and I can see for my self that the dolphins are happy about what they are doing. It’s a big place to run and the fish they have to buy to the dolphins is expensive. When I know that the animals are okay and the money goes to making them stay okay, I gladly pay – and when I gain the incredible experience it is to swim with dolphins, dance with them and cuddle them… I mean, what else could get this smile bloom than getting some lovely secrets whispered in my ear from beautiful Einstein?

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