Friday, May 11, 2012

Dolphin Encounters

Murray and me

Bailey torpedoed off into the distance, leapt out of the water, flipped in the air, plunged back in, and speeded back, skidding to a stop in front of us, eager for accolades. We all applauded and thanked her for the impressive performance. She seemed genuinely delighted to please. And then, just as suddenly, she turned her back to us and swam off to meet up with a friend! Rumor has it that she has a young boyfriend!

Bailey is a six year old Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin living at Anthony's Key Resort in Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras. The Roatan Institute for Marine Science (RIMS) is based at AKR and runs the dolphin program. They offer dolphin 'encounters' and educational programs. At the moment, there are approximately 27 dolphins of all ages who live there.

Dolphins have held a special place in my heart since I was young. When I worked as a crew member on sailing yachts in the Caribbean, and elsewhere, we often saw dolphins out at sea. They would occasionally come and swim alongside the boat. Sometimes they would turn on their side, to look up at us. So, when I was recently choosing a travel destination for the purpose of re-charging, I thought of the dolphins at AKR. This place had been on my travel bucket list for years.

What I like about the AKR/R.I.M.S. dolphin program, as opposed to many other places where you can 'swim with the dolphins', is that these exceptionally intelligent marine mammals have quite a lot of space in which to live and thrive. Although there is a fence along their enclosure, there is also a gate that always remains open, so they are actually free to come and go as they please. But, this is their home, with obvious benefits, so they choose to stay stay there.

Occasionally, the dolphins go out and swim around the area, on their way to a diver interaction or a performance in front of the R.I.M.S. facility. They can be spotted swimming along side one of the boats. They follow along, much like a pet dog follows a car or a bicycle. Sometimes, they're just not quite ready to go home, so they linger in the lagoon.  In addition, the dolphins are free to opt out of 'encounters' or performances.  If they don't feel like participating, they can go off and, well, do dolphin things!

Sharks? Nah, just a group of playful dolphins!

The dolphin's home at AKR

The dolphin encounter experience started with a boat ride to Bailey's Key, just across the lagoon from AKR. There were about 15 people, some of whom I recognized from our snorkeling excursions. We walked down the pier to a cabana, where an instructor briefed us about dolphin anatomy, behavior, and what to expect during our interaction.

The pier to Bailey's Key

The Cabana at Bailey's Key

Getting to know dolphin anatomy 

He advised us about dolphin etiquette: the do's and don't's of interacting with the dolphins. I was pleased to observe that the dolphins' safety was the R.I.M.S. staff's main concern. For example, we were not allowed to bring our cameras into the water−but for a few minutes−for fear that we might inadvertently hit the dolphins with our cameras.

Then, the instructor placed us in groups and we headed out to into waist deep water, joining the trainers and dolphins. They told us to line up side by side so that the dolphins could swim along, in front of us, and not get confused. Our group would be meeting Bailey, and Lauren, her trainer.

Our group encounter

This photo is from another group encounter which I photographed.
It shows the way we stood, side by side, to 'pet' the dolphin.

Bailey and Lauren, during our encounter

Lauren was attached to a red cooler, which floated next to her. Occasionally she would open it, grab a fish, and give it to Bailey. However, she explained, dolphins don't just interact with humans for the fish—that's not their primary motivator. They're just naturally very social creatures and genuinely love interacting with humans, as has been documented throughout history. They also love attention, applause, and accolades! So, we were supposed to make a big fuss when Bailey showed off! 

Bailey then swam in front of us and allowed us to 'pet' her. Since I was the first in line, I reached out, and gently touched her smooth skin. After the tactile intro she went back to Lauren, who gave her a fish. We were quick to applaud, thank her, and tell her, "That's a good dolphin, very good dolphin!" She squealed with apparent delight!

But, Bailey's mind was elsewhere, and she kept taking off to go visit her friends, who were either in different groups, or just playing around. So, Lauren enlisted another willing dolphin, Murray, to come and play with us humans. 

Murray was pregnant although they weren't sure how far along. Dolphins have a gestation period of 11-18 months. Someone asked if they have a breeding program, and the trainer answered, "No, what goes on at night, huh, stays there…well, we don't know what goes on at night!" Everyone laughed! So, the dolphins are free to choose their mates. They are apparently thriving in their environment because there are dolphins of all ages there.

Pretty soon we had both dolphins, Bailey and Murray, and their trainers, interacting with our group. They showed off their agility and skills with some flips, tail walks, and backstrokes (the dolphins, not the trainers)! Throughout the encounter they were very vocal and demonstrated all of the different sounds they make. I'd love to know what they were saying. Although researchers have not quite figured out how to interpret dolphin chatter, the trainers said that by working with them on a daily basis they do get to know their personalities and have a good idea of what they want. I guess it's kind of similar to how one gets to know one's pet.

Then, came the time for photo opportunities with the dolphins. The trainer chose Murray for the job. There were two photos: one where you hold the dolphin and one where the dolphin 'kisses' you. Well, most folks were part of a couple, so for the first photo each partner got on either side of the dolphin. Since I was alone, the trainer helped Murray and me get into position, but then I was left to hold the 400 plus pound dolphin by myself! I had my doubts, and wasn't at all sure if I'd be able to do it, especially since there was a bit of a current, making us humans somewhat unstable. But, I held her, cradling her underneath with both my arms, and then realized that if I adjusted my legs, I could actually place her on my lap! Oh my God, that was amazing—I was holding a dolphin on my lap! 

Murray and I manage a smooch!

Dolphins live to be about 25-35 years old in the wild, a bit longer in a place like AKR, where they are protected. In fact, at the moment, there is a 42 year old pregnant dolphin there! 

Our dolphin encounter came to an end, we said our goodbyes, and Bailey and Murray swam off with their friends. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. 

"Please be considerate of the dolphins and do not disturb them after hours—this is their private time!"

For more information on the Anthony's Key Resort / Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences 
dolphin program click here

Sadly, we humans continue to pose the greatest threat to dolphins, and other marine mammals.
There are many organizations helping to save dolphins and Cetaceans, in general. 

Stay tuned for more dolphin interaction experiences.

Please note: I have in no way been comped by Anthony's Key Resort. 
This post is purely describing my personal experience, and is solely for entertainment purposes. 

1 comment:

  1. What fun! I too am wary of "swimming with the dolphin" set-ups, because of the dreadful conditions most places have. I was so glad to read your account of a place that makes dolphins' safety the main concern, and tourists just get to stop in. Thanks!