Swimming with the Dolphins
At last, we embarked on the great dolphin adventure. When we first learned this was possible, early in the Orlando week of the trip, it quickly turned into Cathy's quest for the trip, her defining activity for the vacation. She eventually managed to sign us up for two programs at the "Theater of the Sea": "Trainer for a Day" and "Swim with the Dolphins."
As trainers for the day, we learned about sea mammal diets, up close and personal. We got to pick out and weigh a portion of the daily diet for three dolphins, one smelly little fish at a time. We learned about the strict standards by which the animal food is prepared, not much different than the regulations that restaurants must follow, give or take actually cooking the fish. After paying our KP dues as trainees, we got to actually work with the dolphins. We learned the hand signals for some simple tricks, and how the correct behaviors of the dolphins are reinforced and rewarded. The dolphins nuzzled our palms while we petted and praised them. They danced around for us, and kissed us on our cheeks. We learned how to signal the dolphins with a whistle when they did a behavior correctly, and then feed them treats from our gruesome little fish buckets. Cathy also got to play "veterinarian for a day." They were in the process of teaching a two-year-old calf to present her tail fin and hold still while a blood sample is drawn. Cathy got to play the part of the vet, rubbing on alcohol and tapping the tail fin for a vein, everything but actually drawing blood. When the fun was over, we got to scrub and disinfect our fish buckets.
Our "graduation present" was to do similar things with a pair of female sea lions. They had been taught simple but amazing behaviors that they would do on verbal command, even for random tourists. We all got to pet them, and they hugged us and gave us a kiss on each cheek. Cathy got to give the command "smile," to which Classy has learned to stick out her tongue. I got to play Frisbee with Sassy, who could not only lunge to catch my lousy throws, but could return the toss with startling speed and accuracy. Cathy was captivated with their affectionate behavior. Obviously, they had been taught to do these things, but they clearly thrive on attention and were much better able than the dolphins to interact with us land-bound creatures since they are quite comfortable and mobile out of the water. Constantly hamming it up, eking out every possible laugh and squeal from the audience, the sea lions clearly thrive on human attention.
"Swim with the Dolphins" was also a lot of fun, although we had more contact and interaction with them in the earlier program. We got to swim in the pool with the same three female dolphins, Bubbles, Shiloh and the calf Ariel. We practiced some behaviors with them, racing from one end of the pool to the other (the winner gets a raw fish; fortunately, the dolphins always win), spinning in circles, the dolphin high jump, and the two-dolphin dorsal fin tourist pull. After the structured behaviors, we got to swim laps with the dolphins, and they played with whoever seemed interesting to them. Although they let me pet them a couple of times, they were clearly embarrassed at my floundering in the water and mostly swam by just barely out of reach. Cathy took some photos with the underwater camera, and we had our session videotaped, which we'll get in a couple of weeks.
In between and after the programs, we watched the various shows and tours, and learned about lots of different creatures. Our last stop was to watch the sea lion show. We had seen most of the behaviors, but Cathy just had to see them again. She raised her hand and was one of ten lucky volunteers who got to "give five," and get a kiss and a hug from the affectionate creatures.
Theater of the Sea is located in Islamorada in the Florida Keys. Their phone number is 305 664-2431.
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