I can’t stop laughing as the dolphin sweeps me through the water while I cling tightly to his hard dorsal fin. Spray smacks me in the face as we whoosh across the pool; below, water tickles my toes. All too soon, a whistle from the dolphin’s trainer alerts my “steed” to dive deep into the depths of the cold pool — and alerts me to hop off before I get dragged along.
It’s too quick and over too fast, but I’ve just had the ride of my life.
That lightning-quick splash across the pool is the climax of an hour in the company of two Black Sea dolphins at the Mediterraneo Marine Park on the coast of Malta. For many who visit Budvan and Pega in their cold-water pool, the hour fulfills a lifelong dream — to swim with dolphins.
“I’ve always wanted to swim with dolphins,” Katie from Rochester, England, tells me as we get into our swimming gear. “I thought I’d have to go to Florida to do it.”
Ten of us had signed up for a “swim with dolphins” session — an hour that involves more play than swimming. Our group consisted primarily of Britons, but there also was a German couple and one American, me. And we spanned three or four generations, with the youngest an English girl of about 6 and the oldest an English gentleman who as close to 70. The only spectators were parents and significant others, all armed with cameras and seated on tiers of concrete benches that line the outdoor observers’ gallery.
Before being led to the water arena, we received an introduction to the park and some of its other residents — a trio of sea lions, a parrot and a herd of goats — from trainer Michele Sarlo. The Maltese sun was sufficiently hot for shorts and globs of SPF-15-and-above sun protection cream, but Sarlo warned those of us who were going to swim with the dolphins that we might want to consider wearing rubber wet gear over our usual swim suits. The salt-water pool’s temperature is kept as low as it would be in the sea depths for the dolphins’ comfort. It is considerably cooler than a normal heated pool. All of us decided, however, to brave the cold and go without a rubber suit.
I went in last. I hate being submerged in cold, but for once, mind triumphed over matter, and I paddled briskly around the pool to warm up. Suddenly, the two dolphins were in the water with us, and Sarlo prepared us for our first encounter. One by one, we’d swim to the pool’s edge to have our pictures taken, framed by Budvan and Pega. I virtually had to pinch myself as I looked to either side and saw these gray-white faces with their open-mouthed “smiles,” and felt them supporting my weight upward. You can’t help but smile — no, beam! — along with them.
Until then, I’d figured the closest I'd ever get to having my picture taken with a real, live dolphin was the photo taken of me on a wooden dolphin cutout at the Heidelberg July 4 German-American carnival when I was 8.
Back in the middle of the pool, we humans learned a new trick: turning around in the water with the forefinger of one hand tracing circles in the air. We were “dancing,” and soon, we’d share center stage with the dolphins. Again, one by one, we joined up with a dolphin partner. As I waved my finger around and turned, Budvan — or was it Pega? — imitated my watery pirouette.
Sarlo, standing on the pool’s edge, rewarded his charges with fish every now and again as they followed commands. Positive reinforcement is used by Mediterraneo’s trainers to encourage Budvan and Pega through their paces. When the dolphins perform the desired behavior, they are rewarded. When they don’t, the behavior is ignored and redirected.
The same training techniques are used on giant mammals at the Sea Worlds in the United States, and in fact, inspired “Whale Done!” the most recent (human) management book by Ken Blanchard, best known for “The One-Minute Manager.”
Empathy is part and parcel of the relationship trainers must forge with the dolphins. An unexpected example of how trainers must be closely attuned with the dolphins’ emotions and respect them occurred during my swim at Mediterraneo. A 20-year-old Englishman who was celebrating his honeymoon suddenly became dizzy in the pool and had to be dragged out by Sarlo and a helper. For the next 10 or 15 minutes, all of Sarlo’s attention was directed to the youth, who was subsequently taken away by ambulance with a suspected case of either sunstroke or dehydration. The helper kept an eye on the dolphins, who bobbed close to the pool’s edge and politely but firmly prevented us humans from venturing close to them.
When Sarlo returned from his emergency mission, he began instructing us in a new routine. But we would do the routine with one dolphin only. The incident involving our fellow swimmer had upset one of the dolphins, and Sarlo excused him from class, allowing him to swim freestyle and solo around the pool, to regain his equilibrium. There was no danger to the swimmers, Sarlo emphasized. The dolphin just needed space.
The dolphin rejoined us for our final routine, the thrill of the day — the dolphin-back ride across the pool. If he was still upset, he was taking the stiff-upper-lip approach and nursing his concern privately, professional that he was.
The nine of us who had stayed healthy until the end trooped toward the dressing rooms, feeling as if we’d somehow crossed the line between mythology and reality and come back too soon. We didn’t talk, we just smiled beatifically at each other.
As we waited for our pictures to develop, I walked back to the gate of the water arena and peered through. One of the dolphins was still in the pool, amusing himself with a basketball. He clutched the ball in his mouth, threw it in the air and bounced it on his nose. He let it fall, took a quick swim around the pool and repeated his game, bouncing it in the air several times before letting it fall. As soon as he saw me, however, he let the ball fall in the water, and he swam away. He was on his own time now, and I wasn’t welcome to watch.
DeeDee Doke is a free-lance writer living in England.
Dolphins inspired creation of Malta sea park
At just 19 years old, the dolphins Budvan and Pega have lived an extraordinary life. And they are in great part responsible for Mediterraneo’s creation.
They were born in a marineland and research station in Batumi, Georgia, in 1983. But the breakup of the former Soviet Union as the 1990s dawned led to the loss of financial aid for the research station. At the same time, the Black Sea’s pollution levels skyrocketed after years of environmental abuse, making the water unsafe for man and animal alike.
The research station’s veterinarians, behaviorists and biologists all decamped, and along with the two dolphins, moved to Yugoslavia, where, Mediterraneo officials say, they found themselves “within a short time, in the middle of a civil war. Desperate situations call for desperate measures and the United Nations recommended another move in the interests of safety.”
The dolphins and their keepers were flown to Malta where they landed without the necessary permits. Fortunately, the Mediterraneo officials continue, “Compassion prevailed, and the dolphins and their human companions were allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds.”
(U.N. offices in the former Yugoslavia contacted by Stars and Stripes have been unable to find any records of aid to the dolphins.)
Temporary accommodation was found for the dolphins. However, the idea arose of creating a marine park in which to house them. The concept was unusual, though, because dolphins are usually acquired “to balance social groupings in existing pools. In this case, the pools were actually going to be built for the dolphins,” the officials say.
The park concept was also broadened to bring in other animals — sea lions, goats, a reptile exhibit — to attract visitors. The park opened in 1997 and today it is open year-round.
By DeeDee Doke
Tags: Dolphins Animals Biology Science Education