“Look over here, Felicity. Felicity, look at the camera.”
I don’t want to. I don’t want to look away from the dolphin I’m standing toe to tail-fluke with.
“Felicity, over here.”
I exhale and force a smile, turning my face as directed.
“Now reach your hand out, that’s it, cup her beak with your hand and put your face close for a ‘dolphin-kiss,’ that’s it… nice one…” *FLASH*
Well, the Dolphin Research Center trainer, Catherine Dunn, didn’t actually say, “next,” what she said was, “Okay, move back around to the end of the line… Sarah’s next…”
My “Dolphin Encounter” at Marathon Florida’s Dolphin Research Center (DRC) was not quite the exchange I had dreamed of while doodling dolphin drawings in the margins of high-school and college note books, or when memorizing every worthwhile book on cetacean communication and human-dolphin interactions.
There were six of us humans, all women except for two eleven-year-old boys, standing on a submerged dock hung off the side of one of the research center’s training platforms.
Ms. Dunn, a poised, tanned brunette whose teaching degree shows in her patient but firm coaxing, instructed us “dolphineers” to swim about five feet from the dock and wait for our host dolphin, Tina, to pull along side. We were to then gently grasp her dorsal fin as she “pulled” us around the visitor’s lagoon.
“Wait, what? Already?” I swam forward into the lagoon, and before I realized it a 7-foot dolphin appeared at my side…
“Grab her fin, there’s her fin, take it…”
I hadn’t even had a chance to get used to the colder, deeper water no less process the fact that a dolphin was actually swimming beside me … and someone is shouting at me to grab her dorsal fin? I managed to find the fin in a blur of spray and wavelets and glaring Florida Keys sun.
I tried to register the rubbery slick warmth of an actual dolphin fin in my hand, felt the jerk and power of her muscles … and before I knew it was letting go again as we closed on the platform. The entire “pull” lasted less than a minute and covered no more than a few dozen feet of lagoon.
But my heart was in my mouth for even that brief encounter, my hands reaching for the platform as my feet secured a purchase on the slippery underwater dock.
And so it went for perhaps 40 minutes, tricks interspersed with brief morsels of dolphin lore, a smattering of facts, a few chances to sneak in some quick questions and observations… “How old is her calf, how long will he nurse?”
“He was born this November,” answered Ms. Dunn. “Dolphins nurse for three to five years, depending on what works for each individual mother and baby; making weaning as varied as it is for humans.”
Meanwhile Tina and her nearly five-foot long calf, Reese, patiently interacted with us awe-struck, excited humans, consenting to our coached requests. Though it was mostly thrilling, a few aspects of the encounter felt a little corny. I can only imagine how the dolphins felt.
But this is how the Dolphin Research Center gains the funds vital to its work and the habitats it maintains for the unreleasable dolphins that call its lagoons home.
A topic to be pursued in Aquariverse’s next post.
“People protect what they love.”
*Photos of Felicity swimming and one-on-one with Tina and DRC LAGOON photos by Dolphin Research Center, Grassy Key, Florida
*All other photos by Frans Jurgens – courtesy
Dolphin Research Center, Grassy Key, Florida