Sunday, August 06, 2006

Swimming with Dolphins


Like anybody else I’ve seen dolphins from a distance swimming in their respective tanks at places like Sea World and Marine Land. Each time I’ve paid money to buy little paper plates of dead fish and elbow my way to the edge of the tank only to get about 1.5 seconds of interaction with the dolphin as the fish slid unceremoniously down his throat into his gillet. Up to this point I’ve had more interaction and seen more reciprocation from the neighbors dog whenever I have given him an extra dog biscuit.

We were lucky enough to stay at the Interconnental Beachcomber Resort in Moorea. Out towards the over-water bungalows the Dolphin Experience Center is nestled in between the bungalows.

As we would walk past the dolphin tanks at night we would hear the occasional thrashing in the water or hear their punctuated breathing out their blowholes. Then silently, swiftly we could see one of them glide through the water in the darkness as a shadow under the water.

The Dolphin Experience is located near the over water bungalows in the hotel. All of the pens that the dolphins are contained in are actually part of the ocean. The only thing that separates them from the big blue briny is a series of nets. This nets still allow the fish from the area such as puffers, triggerfish and zebra fish to still come in. They live among the dolphins in a natural habitat with the occasional smattering of a dropped sardine or bread from the local tourist. It’s the most natural setting for marine life that I have seen, compared to the sterile environment of Sea World

Because they are somewhat elusive and would not always show themselves at night we found ourselves more fascinated with the sea life in the tank than the dolphins themselves. On the walk back to the room after dinner one night Jill discovered a rather large octopus on a coral reef just below the walkway that we were standing on. He was perched on a rock lashing out at fish with his tentacle that would pass by in hopes of a meal. Eventually he took a disliking to my flashlight shining on him and he attempted to change colors a couple of times, squirted some ink in anger, then shot off into the darkness to find a more private place to hunt.

When our appointment time came to meet with a dolphin we were introduced to Kuba Koa, a retired US Navy dolphin that had completed his career with the Navy as a sonar dolphin at the training center in San Diego.



With all three of us in the shallow tank for the family dolphin encounter the most amazing thing to me was how quickly, silently and with the greatest agility the animal was able to power slide under the water just inches from us without us seeing or hearing him. It was startling to say the least.


We were allowed to stay about a half an hour with the animal. We touched, petted and were shown all the parts of the creature and all the while he was patient and calm. While he was resting in the water I had my hand over his chest and I was able to feel his heartbeat.

The visit with the dolphin was very structured; the instructor narrated the entire time guiding us through some simple routines with the dolphin. The instructor wore a waist pack in to the water but instead of the regular wallet, keys and such, his was filled with sardines. He was surrounded by a plethora of fish attracted to the scent of the dead fish that he carried as positive reinforcement for the dolphin. There were so many I could run my hands through the school and feel their fins and scales.


Aside from petting and inspecting the dolphin up close we got to give the dolphin command for away and he would then swim off 20 feet or so then leap straight up out of the water some 15 feet or more. We did this three times, each time a spectacular site.


Despite spending so much time with the creature I never really felt like I got to know it. It is not like a dog or a horse. The dolphin despite its clear intelligence, agility and strength seemed elusive and flighty. Perhaps during the experience the dolphin was able to read more about me than could I from it.

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