Becoming acquainted with our new buddies
By Karen Erens
Jean-Marc wrote in the previous edition of ScubaBiz.Help magazine about childhood dreams and meeting dolphins in the oceans with our sailboat Blowing Bubbles. In this article, I will tell the story of us interacting with the dolphins at the Dolphin Academy of Curaçao.
Of course, we all like to see dolphins swimming in the open ocean instead of swimming in a much smaller basin. Still, please read the whole article instead of having a preshaped opinion about dolphins living in captivity because here in Curaçao, they DO NOT!
Our day at the Dolphin Academy started pretty early when we were welcomed by Iris Toren, a dolphin trainer at the Dolphin Academy, incorporated in the Curaçao Sea Aquarium. After the first theoretical part about the evolution of dolphins, we went into the water to meet our new buddies. We entered the walkway in the water on the side of the basin with the breakfast box for Romeo. He immediately came to say hi to Iris; they played a bit, and we were introduced to Romeo.
Iris taught us where to touch and not touch a dolphin. They don’t like being touched in the face by strangers, just like humans. So we could pet his back and belly. Their skin feels very smooth, to have less water-resistance in the water. Dolphins shed the outer layer of their skin every 2 hours in order to maintain hydrodynamics and protect their bodies from parasites and bacteria.
Romeo got some fish in between, we received a dolphin kiss, and to finish the “get-to-know-each-other” session, we could admire some high jumps and other acrobatic tricks.
A dolphin has a very fast metabolism, so they receive fish several times daily, usually combined with a water session and a dolphin trainer. Each dolphin is followed up and gets its own diet depending on sex, age and body weight. The Sea Aquarium maintains a stock of about three months of fish in a big freezer; that’s a lot of fish!
Next on our ‘to do’ list was the train the trainer session. Iris showed us how to hold our hands so the dolphin knows what to do.
Step 1: Put your hands in the water, palms towards the dolphins.
Step 2: Hold your hands in front of your body with arms at a 90° angle to get the attention of the dolphin.
Step 3: Give the sign for the specific action: wave your hands at the dolphin, and he will wave back at you with its fins.
Step 4: The trainer whistles, and the dolphin returns.
Jean-Marc and I trained for a bit; all went well, and what caught my attention was that we were as enthusiastic as the dolphins. They are eager to show their nice jumps and swim back very fast for some attention or a fish. We both tried to remember all the signs as something special was coming up! At the end of the day, during the last public show, we were expected to help Iris and become part of the show ourselves.
To rest a bit after all this action, we went into a classroom where we learned about the background of the Curaçao Aquarium.
That brings us to the question: Why aren’t they living freely in the sea? Since humans have been on Earth, they have tried to domesticate animals. Do you have a cat or a dog at home? Why aren’t they living in the free nature instead of sitting inside your house? Dolphins are much smarter than dogs and should be able to swim in the open ocean, but these dolphins here in the Sea Aquarium do look happy to me.
Twenty years ago, the first dolphins arrived by plane in Curaçao. These dolphins were not captured in the wild, as this was already illegal in the US and the Caribbean since the late 80s (in Japan, fishermen are still catching wild dolphins even today). Our dolphins here are all born in the Dolphin Academy, so they don’t know how to live in the open ocean. As they grow up, dolphins learn a lot from their mothers, like how to use their echolocation. But living in a basin here, the young dolphins also learn a lot of other things from their mom. Their mom doesn’t teach them how to hunt a fish. Instead, they start learning how to interpret hand signals to do those specific jumps, moves or turns. Although the Dolphin Academy doesn’t involve them in the training or public shows as they are still too young, those baby dolphins already pick up a lot from their mothers, but what they don’t learn is how to survive in the open ocean.
The programs to rerelease dolphins in the ocean does not work here as they never learned all the skills to survive in the open ocean.
The Sea Aquarium and Dolphin Academy do many things to make the lives of the dolphins different. First of all, it has been built next to the sea, with a lot of rocks and a sandy bottom, you’ll find no pool tiles here.
Just like humans, dolphins also have good friends and sometimes have not such a good relationship with other dolphins. Here in the Sea Aquarium, they consider those relationships and have a way that the dolphins can choose who to live with in their basins. So they live together with friends.
They also have a close relationship with their trainers. They treat them with respect and love, which the dolphins, of course, can feel.
The most unique thing is that Dolphin Academy has a special program where they take the dolphins out in the open sea on a regular basis. They can swim freely, some dolphins try to hunt fish, and they just swim around and return to the Aquarium—more details about how this works in the next edition.
Some interesting dolphin facts:
- Dolphins cannot smell; instead, they taste.
- Dolphins need to think to be able to sleep. So they sleep with one part of the brain, which means they close one eye and keep one eye open when sleeping. They don’t have a fixed sleeping pattern.
- Echolocation is accurate up to 200m.
- Each dolphin has to learn to use echolocation from their mother. Once they learn to use it, they can visualize an object using echolocation.
In the afternoon, it was our time to swim with the dolphins. The head trainer, George, guided us towards Annie and Roxette, two female dolphins. When we jumped in the water, they knew what was coming and were so excited. Swimming became snorkelling and freediving with them. They felt we were comfortable in the water, so they were playful and swam next to us when we dove down and accompanied us when coming up to the surface again. The sounds they made underwater were amazing. Watch the video, and you’ll hear all their funny sounds and much more. Here is the link https://youtu.be/OYYu5CLRYMc
They could go on forever, but it was really tiring for us, and after the swim session, we had a last round of training for the upcoming public show. We were ready for it.
At the start of the public show, the dolphins were guided by Iris. Once she handed them over to us by using specific hand signals, we were in command. Just like us, the dolphins were also ready for it! They enthusiastically did all the things we asked them for, and we finished our part of the show with a beautiful synchronous jump performed by the two dolphins.
What a beautiful day! We learned so much more about dolphins, and they earned even more of our respect than before.
Next month, we will publish the third part of this series of dolphins! The part where we will take them out in the ocean, free swimming and scuba diving with them.
And you can do exactly the same. Come to Curaçao, book this course and learn all those new things about dolphins while interacting with them! This is a dream for many that can become a reality at the Dolphin Training Academy in Curaçao.
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