As a child, I always wanted to swim with dolphins. And, if I’m honest, as an adult as well.
Swimming with dolphins has become a cliché in the repertoire of half-formed dreams, wishes and wonderings of those who realise that their time on this earth has limits. Yet it wasn’t until I sat down to write this post that it occurred to me to question why.
I’ve been lucky, catching sight of dolphins in the wild off the shores of Oman, Tenerife and even Dingle in Ireland (although, to be fair, it was dolphin singular in that last case.) Each time, even in Ireland, sunbeams sparkled across the waves, almost daring onlookers with their brilliance.
“Are you sure?” they seem to say. “You’re sure you want to see dolphins? Look closely, then, and prepare yourself for staring into the light of the sun itself.”
Wet dolphins reflect light like diamonds. They’re also fast: blazing through the water, throwing crescents above the sea while they race besides the boat.
Yet today there wasn’t going to be a boat. I was standing in the Dolphin Research Center in Florida – and training, instead of chasing, was the name of the game.
To the sound of whooping and hollering, we lazed through the Florida Keys sunshine to meet the team, led by aficionado Mary Stella.
“Y’know,” she says to us in a sunshine state drawl. “If I were a dolphin, I’d want to be born here.”
There’s a tricky moment, I think, when talking to anyone who deals with animals in captivity. For a start, you have to remember to avoid the word captivity, a task that inexplicably becomes impossible as soon as you have to remember to do it.
Research centres, sanctuaries and programmes like these are clearly gallons of water away from cramped zoos and performing circuses. And there’s no doubt in my mind that Mary, and the other members of the team, show far more devotion towards the animals in their care than I do.
I’ve written before about my unease and unanswered questions about aquariums – and my eyes and mind have been opened by the replies in the comments sections.
Yet still, as someone besides me murmurs under his breath about wanting to live free in the oceans, questions arise and I just wish we could talk more openly about one or two things.
Perhaps burned by the press in the past, the staff remain cautious today.
The Dolphin Research Center lives, no soaks, in the Florida sunshine. The trainers wear splash vests and swim suits and the dolphins really do seem to wear smiles.
Nets and fences carve up the ocean into spaces for the dolphins, who roam freely in between.
“During Hurricane Wilma,” says Mary, “the water covered the walkways and the dolphins could have left. But they didn’t.”
This is exactly the kind of thing I wish they’d talk more about. They’re a specialised research centre, performing robust tests into dolphin counting, object permanence (remembering where you left the car keys,) foetal echocardiography and more.
They should know, then, psychologically speaking, that just because an animal doesn’t try to escape, doesn’t mean it wants to stay. There’s the phenomenon of learned helplessness, whereby animals realise that no matter what they do, they cannot break through a certain barrier. Eventually, when that barrier is removed, they no longer try. It leads animals to starve themselves when food is plenty; it’s thought to explain why abducted children stay with the adults who molest them. After enough failed attempts, animals simply learn that it’s too dangerous to keep on trying.
Of course, this may have nothing to do with the dolphins here. The science geek inside me would just have liked to explore it as a possibility.
As it is, just a short afternoon here opens up all kinds of questions about animal training (and yes, that includes husbands who won’t pick up their socks, children who won’t tidy their rooms, women who won’t stop nagging and writers who won’t stop using clichés.)
In each pen, we see different stages of training. In the main one, the adult males leap into the air, turning somersaults, twisting and shimmering beneath the sun to the whoops of encouragement from the team.
“We use positive reinforcement here,” Mary explains, as the males munch their way through a coolbox load of fish and good cheer. “We don’t punish.”
Behind me, I see what happens when something goes wrong.
Two small platforms bob into the water, where children take turns at touching or training the young dolphins. With a deft, quiet signal, everyone walks away.
“What happened?” I ask.
“Someone did something they’re not supposed to,” replies one of the trainers, leaving me to wonder whether we’re talking about child or dolphin.
“Dolphins are just like you,” says Mary, when I try to find out what happened. “They get grumpy. They have mood swings, too.”
A scurrilous accusation.
Across the way, a baby dolphin takes its baby flips through the training routine. It wins a fish each time it correctly touches the target pole. The next stage involves correctly identifying its name as a symbol – a cross or a crescent or a circle, say, – next to the target pole.
“Dolphins pick out the symbols with echolocation,” explains Jennifer, a Senior Education Officer. “They can only see for about 10 metres – and they can’t see well ahead.”
Besides the merry baby in training, baby humans are at play.
At the Dolphin Research Center, you can pay to swim with dolphins. You can also, as I saw, learn to paint with them as well.
This is dolphin training at its most subtle. The trainer before us, sporting a hat and a trademark suntan, merely touches his fingers and thumbs together in the slightest of moves to exact the most intuitive of responses.
“You want a photo?” he says. “You don’t need to ask me. Look.”
At a quiver of his fingers, the mother dolphin pauses from painting to swim by and pose.
It’s impressive. Even breathtakingly, cliché-ridden, awesomely so.
The boy’s face fills with delight as he braces the T-shirt against the dolphin’s paintbrush, while I still can’t explain why dolphins, rather than tarantulas, pigeons or rats, hold such appeal.
Perhaps it comes down to this worldly-wise quote from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
“Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons.”
Or perhaps, it comes from another:
- The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish
As for me, I still have more questions and, in spite of that, I’d still love to swim with dolphins.
In the meantime: So long and thanks for all the tweets.
I visited Florida as a guest of Virgin Holidays as part of a Florida Photo Safari both at the Dolphin Research Center and elsewhere. The usual, exciting, disclosure policy applies…
PS – You can swim with dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com