By Karen Erens
In the last edition, I wrote about our dolphin experiences in the Dolphin Academy at the Sea Aquarium in Curaçao. In that article, you can read how Jean-Marc and I learned about the behaviour of dolphins and how they act when you encounter a dolphin in the water, and we learned the basics of dolphin training.
In this last part, I will tell more about the most special thing of the Sea Aquarium, the dolphin open sea swim.
On a daily basis, Dolphin Academy takes its dolphins out for a swim in the open sea. During each session, two dolphins can swim freely in the sea, and we, the team of Scubabiz.Help, could be part of that!
On their trip to the open sea, the dolphins are guided to the surface by a small boat with a dolphin trainer onboard. The procedure is as follows:
- The boat is prepared and waits in front of their basin.
- One of the trainers opens the basin up directly to the sea.
- The dolphins are really excited but wait for the sign of the trainer to swim out of the basin.
- As soon as the trainer gives the sign, the dolphins swim out of the basin, and they meet the trainer next to the boat, where they are fed some fish.
- The boat leaves the premises of the Sea Aquarium through a small channel, and the dolphins follow and swim around or in front of the boat.
- The boat goes out to sea, where it is attached to a mooring.
- The dolphins swim off to hunt some fish, play around, get some fish and have fun in the open sea.
And this is where dive center Ocean Encounters comes into the picture.
Depending on interest/bookings, they organize a real “dolphin dive” for their customers weekly. It is not a cheap dive, but where can you scuba dive with (trained) dolphins as your buddy? Where the dolphins stay with you for 30-45 minutes, play games with you, come to cuddle and maybe take you on a tour of their world?
All this is part of our extended “Dolphin Experience program,” so we meet in the early morning at Ocean Encounters and meet the other people participating in this dive, sort out all the scuba gear and weights. The briefing is long, and all is about how to behave on this dive with dolphins and how to interact with the dolphins. How to touch them? Yes, these dolphins like to be petted, and you should do it correctly. We humans do not like to be ‘touched’ everywhere, nor do dolphins. They, too, are oversensitive on certain spots on their body!!
After the thorough briefing, all the dive equipment and tanks are put on a cart. We are five people on this dive, and we walk in dive suits through the area of the Sea Aquarium towards the sea, where a small protected bay allows us to jump in the water.
Once we arrived at the seaside, we got a second briefing about the location, where and how to jump in the water. We are accompanied by the dive master, an underwater photographer and one of the dolphin trainers. When we are all set, we wait for the sign to jump in. Meanwhile, the guiding boat is tying up to the mooring in front of the dive site.
While in the water, I can already hear the dolphin sounds while descending to 5m/15ft of depth. The dolphins circle around the boat, waiting to swim together with their trainer. Our group of five scuba divers, a dive master, and a photographer follow.
Next, we are headed towards a sandy patch in the middle of a beautiful coral garden. Just outside the protection of the Sea Aquarium, we encounter a strong head current. The dolphins have no problem with the current; they circle happily around us, swim a bit upfront, and then return to our group.
Are they checking out how slow we are? It feels a bit like that: I am fighting against the current and feel so limited in my underwater movements as a human with scuba tanks. We are so clumsy in comparison to dolphins Romeo and Kaya. I can feel they are excited. At first, they stay very close to the trainer, but after some time, they get more curious and check out each diver. They pass so close that we can easily touch them with a flat hand; that’s how they like it. They close their eyes while being petted, so (in my opinion) they really enjoy it. Their skin is so smooth and very well streamlined in the water. Next, they leave me alone because I forgot they have to swim up from time to time to breathe at the surface.
After a while, this group of poor swimmers is getting boring for them, and the trainer comes up with a new game. He holds a ring in his hand, which the dolphins take with their nose and swim to the boat to deliver the ring. In just a minute, I see them returning; that’s how fast they swim. That distance would have taken me about 10-15 minutes.
The dive has multiple purposes as it gives the trainer the possibility to introduce the dolphins into deeper water (below -7mtr/21ft) as the dolphins are not used to be in darker, deeper water, these daily tours give them the chance to explore deeper water, hunt for a fish BUT without a person by their side, the dolphins wouldn’t do it. They trust us to guide and take them there; it is an impressive-feeling.
Playing games, doing tag along, taking a tour with them, time flies, and after 45 minutes, we “fly” back, using the current to take us back in the boat’s direction. Both dolphins are circling us, and I try to enjoy it as much as possible as the dive is coming to an end. They pass to say goodbye, or at least I like to think that, before heading back to the boat and their home.
What a beautiful experience!
Those dolphins live in a beautiful basin directly connected to the ocean. They are treated well, and I don’t have the feeling that they are sad or unhappy. They were born in basins like this; they don’t know what it is to live in the ocean, and as they grew up in a basin, they lack a lot of skills to be able to survive in the open sea.
The kind of experience we’ve had at Dolphin Academy makes you realize that dolphins are wonderful mammals. They deserve a lot of respect in basins, but also in the ocean, there’s still a lot of work to protect their habitats.
We hope that by visiting this kind of basin and meeting dolphins up close and personal, people will do more to protect these beautiful ocean creatures.
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