Interacting with dolphins

Is being pulled through the water by two dolphins as fun as it sounds?

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine August 2015

 

Ask any kid what they want to do when they grow up and chances are high they want to become a dolphin trainer. No surprise, as swimming with dolphins is one of the coolest things ever. A lucky few have encountered the highly inquisitive mammals in the wild, but for those who haven’t Zoomarine’s Dolphin Emotions offers you the opportunity to get up close and interact with them while learning something about the bottlenose dolphin in the process. Sounds like something we want to try!

Is being pulled through the water by two dolphins as fun as it sounds? (Spoiler alert). No, it’s even better! When I was a kid, dolphin trainer was fourth on my dream jobs list (right after Superwoman, pop singer and minister president). As the years went by I soon realised that I couldn’t fly, shouldn’t sing and by the time I’d get into politics, the reason I wanted to become the leader of the land -to make going to school not obligatory for children who hated it with a passion- wouldn’t be very beneficial to myself anymore. As I specialised in languages rather than biology, becoming a dolphin trainer was off the cards as well.

 

Zoomarine was home to the oldest male dolphin in the world

The wish to swim with these animals, however, has always stayed. In Zoomarine in Guia (near Albufeira) they have both dolphins that participate in the presentations and ones that partake in the interaction programme. The dolphins’ areas are clean, spacious and look like sea surrounded by tropical islands. It’s not the open ocean, but actually offers a better chance of survival, as in the wild they are subject to predators and diseases. In the park, the dolphins are closely monitored and have regular medical checks. “Their welfare is our main priority and our birth success rate is one of the highest,” Diogo Rojão of Zoomarine states. Also after birth things continue to go well for the mammals: Zoomarine was home to the oldest male dolphin in the world, Sam, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 50.

 

Visiting the Conscience centre, I’m convinced this place cares for its creatures

Whenever possible, Zoomarine releases marine animals back into the wild, for example those who are found ill and injured on the Algarve coastline. Currently there are only a couple of turtles and tortoises in the Rehabilitation Centre for Marine Species, but a long list of signs outside the building shows just a few of the many other species that have been cared for over the years. It’s impressive; some rescued seals have been flown back all the way to the National Seal Sanctuary in Cornwall (UK), just because the environment there is closer to their natural habitat. The Conscience exhibition centre is another must visit when doing Dolphin Emotions (it’s in the park, so you walk past it anyway), as it shows the research and conservation work being done to secure the future of various animal species. Right, I’m convinced this is a place that cares for its creatures: time to meet the dolphins!

 

The expulsion of air out of Hamlet’s blowhole takes me by surprise

First though, I have to change my bikini with shiny tangling bits for one without accessories. Why? “Well, dolphins are very curious and they might want to play with the strings, leading to an, uhm, embarrassing situation for you,” is the answer. Oops, didn’t think of that. (No worries of losing your bikini bottoms if you haven’t brought two sets of swimwear, Zoomarine provides shorts). Rings, necklaces, piercings, hair bands and all other items need to come off as well, as not to harm the animals. Hands washed with soap, shower taken, neoprene vest on and it’s time for an educational talk. Dolphin Emotions monitor Cristiana Matos, who is fluent in at least three languages, gives some basic info about the bottlenose dolphins and explains the do’s and don’ts of swimming with them. This isn’t just fun, it’s also a crash course in biology and fits in with Zoomarine’s goal to increase public appreciation of wildlife.

Also in the water, trainers continue to educate us about the dolphins. With five other participants, I gingerly approach the giant grey animals and move closer to Hamlet, a 19-years-old male. We stroke his back (which feels like wet rubber, a bit like one of these comfy bicycle saddles) and his softer tummy, and feel the bones in his pectoral fins. The expulsion of air out of Hamlet’s blowhole takes me by surprise. You can literally feel him breathe. As big as he is (bottlenose dolphins reach an average length of 2-4m), Hamlet obediently turns around and rolls over for us to have a closer look.

 

The only downside? I permanently smell of fish

Commands are given through whistles and hand signals; all training is done through positive reinforcement. So how do you punish them if they don’t listen? Is there a naughty step for dolphins? Senior dolphin trainer Márcia Neto looks at me shocked. “We don’t punish them at all! Punishment doesn’t make sense, it would distress the dolphins and crash the relationship we have with them. We just ignore bad behaviour,” she explains. Right, I clearly still have a lot to learn. Márcia continues: “When working with them, we get to know the dolphins. They each have their own personality and preferences and to keep it fun, we only ask them to do the things they like.” Dolphins are rewarded by means of fish, but also by their trainers’ voices. The interaction with humans is actually beneficial to the dolphins’ health, if they’d just swim around by themselves, they might get bored. In order to keep them occupied toys and jelly (like the stuff you eat for dessert, but a sugar-free and dolphin-friendly version – they love the texture) are used as well.

All dolphin trainers also work with other marine animals, but there’s no ‘Seal Swimming’ or ‘Sea Lions Emotions’ at Zoomarine. “This is because dolphins are very curious and like being with new people, other marine animals not that much. Sea lions for example, only trust their trainer,” Márcia explains. While working with the dolphins, they eagerly watch her every move and are keen to return to her for a fish after a well performed trick. I can’t believe she gets paid to be around these amazing and playful animals. “I do have a dream job!,” she agrees. “The only downside? The water gets a bit cold in the winter. Oh, and I permanently smell of fish.”

 

Without hesitation, Hamlet immediately swims off and jumps in the air twice.

The action part of the interaction experience involves me sitting on my knees in the shallow part of the lagoon, arms spread out. Hamlet and fellow dolphin Mickey swim towards me from behind and pull me through the water while I hold onto their dorsal fins. The enormous power of the dolphins is exhilarating. One swims a bit faster than the other but we manage to stay on course and I wonder if they swim at their leisurely pace of about 10km/h or their turbo fast 30km/h. Of course, the ride is way too short. Other participants get pushed by the dolphins on a body board, which according to the French guy who did it, ‘feels like flying’.

We have a go at training too: standing in a line, we all put our arm in the air and circle two times. Without hesitation, Hamlet immediately swims off and jumps in the air twice. The speed with which he returns from his jumps is almost scary. Three claps of the hand and he splashes us all wet with his tail. When I swim into the deep water and hold out my hand, Hamlet swims over and pushes me around in a circle. I’m baffled; all it takes to make a dolphin spin me around in the water is a mere hand signal. That’s less than it takes to make my dog sit and stay (a hand signal, a command, a repeated command, the promise of a dog cookie and the addition of the word ‘please’). I feel like a pro dolphin trainer.

 

It takes many years to build up such a good relationship

But later, when watching one of the dolphin presentations in the park, I realise I’m not even at beginner level yet. Dolphins swim with their carers, throw them high in the air and some trainers even surf on the dolphins. It isn’t only an amazing show, it also clearly shows the bond they have with these animals. As Márcia points out: “To me, they are like family. If one of the dolphins is ill, I don’t sleep at night.” The mutual trust reaches this far, research and medical checks such as taking blood and urine samples can be carried out without the need to sedate the animal. Although Hamlet happily lets me cuddle and kiss him (don’t expect soft lips, it’s more like kissing someone’s elbow – still, it’s cute!), and follows my hand signals, it’s clear he does this to please his trainers more than to please me.

It takes many years to build up such a good relationship. Márcia started out as a volunteer 20 years ago. Yes, Zoomarine still sometimes accepts volunteers (those with a background in Biology are given preference), but to make it to the point of swimming with these animals for a profession takes a lot of conviction, dedication and some luck. It’s not something you do next to your day job; it’s about building relations and having friends for life. The last remaining bit of my childhood dreams of actually becoming a dolphin trainer shattered after this experience? Yes. Sad about this? Not at all. On the contrary; the smile that came on my face when first meeting Hamlet in the water stays there for about a week!

 

When to go?

Between March and October, as Zoomarine is closed the other months of the year. The Dolphin Emotions experiences are available within the opening times of the theme park. Water temperature of course is warmest in the summer months, but Zoomarine provides a wetsuit or neoprene vest.

Advanced booking is required (the earlier the better, but at least 24 hours prior to the experience), so make sure to reserve beforehand to avoid disappointment. For opening times and to book online, visit www.zoomarine.pt.

 

For whom?

Dolphin lovers, of course. Those who secretly dream of becoming a dolphin trainer, those want to cross ‘cuddling a dolphin’ off their bucket list, and those who’d like to learn something about the inquisitive mammals in the process will absolutely love it.

To do the experience, you have to be at least 6 years of age (children aged 6 or 7 have to be accompanied by an adult). Also, participants must know how to swim, not be pregnant and be in good physical shape. Friends and family who want to watch need a spectator ticket. For more information, visit www.zoomarine.pt.

Pictures by Marijke Verschuren

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine August 2015

Posted in This month we try and tagged , , .

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