Swimming with Dolphins

(N.B.: Unless marked with my name, all photos in this post are courtesy of the Moorea Dolphin Center)

Kids always have favorite animals.  Mine was always the bottlenose dolphin. I remember collecting dolphin stickers, having a dolphin necklace, buying a stuffed dolphin, and even drawing little dolphins next to my name when my fifth-grade posse decided that we all needed unique animal characters to identify ourselves on personal notes.

On top of that, I was a swimmer kid who spent most of her summer with pruned fingertips.  I went to the lake for swim team practice in the mornings, went home for breakfast, then went back to the lake for a fully waterlogged day.  My family went on Caribbean vacations where I snorkeled and dove, and I fell in love with marine ecosystems at a young age.

In recent years, I’ve committed to swimming training again, and I’ve put a lot of work into my technique.  When I watch dolphins, sea lions, and seals swim, I am completed captivated by their smooth movements.  With one or two movements of their flukes or tails, they can accelerate to impressive speeds.  I can only dream of being that efficient and graceful.

Given all of this, it’s no wonder I’ve always wanted to swim with a dolphin.

When I recently visited Mo’orea, the amazing Polynesian island just eleven miles from Tahiti, I discovered that it hosted a dolphin center.  When I learned that the center offered swimming with a dolphin as an activity, my heart jumped into my throat.  Should I do it?

Sure, swimming with the dolphins was going to be expensive, but when you’re looking at doing something you’ve dreamed of for forty-odd years, cost becomes insignificant.  My conundrum was ethical.  Do I support the idea of captive marine mammals in general?  How about in this situation?  If not, I shouldn’t be participating in this activity, no matter how much I wanted to.

I decided to spend a chunk of time hanging out at the Mo’orea Dolphin Center watching and learning about their programs to make up my mind.

The Mo’orea Dolphin Center was started in 1994 in the Intercontinental Hotel – the same place, incidentally, in which the tortoise rescue center that I wrote about last week is located.  Just as the tortoises live in a portion of the lagoon that is cordoned off, the dolphins have their own section of seawater that is separated from the ocean by nets.  They are living in sea water that contains fish and coral and that naturally fluctuates in temperature (from 77 to 84 degrees F) and chemistry.  There are seven trainers and a full-time veterinarian on the staff, and the animals’ health is consistently monitored through blood, blow, and fecal samples.

And, as with the tortoise rescue center, the dolphin center has a significant educational component.  In addition to the tourists who pay to touch and swim with the dolphins, school groups and foundations are able to spend time at the center participating in outreach programs.  While the dolphin center is a for-profit business, five percent of the gross proceeds from the center’s activities goes to Te Mana o Te Moana, the non-profit that runs the tortoise rescue center.

There are three dolphins living on site.  Kuokoa and Lokahi are twenty-four-year-old half-brothers who were born in captivity in Hawaii, and Hina is a forty-year old female who was born in the wild and worked in the US Navy marine mammal program in San Diego before coming to the center. The threesome has about .75 acres of water in which to live – a space that struck me as quite small and was one of my main sources of concern.

Yann, the Animal Director at the center and the man who introduced me to the dolphins, managed to convince me that more important than space to the dolphins is what he calls “enrichment.”  Dolphins are intelligent and social creatures, and, like us, they thrive when they are given new and interesting challenges.  Yann believes that the variety and difficulty of the activities they develop for the dolphins keeps them happy and healthy.  In fact, it seems that dolphins live much longer in captivity than in the wild.  The oldest one on record lived to be 62.

“Enrichment” for these dolphins includes working with paying clients – jumping, swimming, shaking fins, talking, and obeying commands of various sorts. It also includes time with the trainers, and, occasionally, time with researchers.  Recently a PhD student filmed the three dolphins swimming in various configurations in order to study how the varied shapes of dolphin spinal columns affect their swimming behaviors.

I watched the trainers work with the dolphins and multiple groups of visitors and noticed that the animals were allowed significant “time off” and away from sessions.  Later, Yann told me that each animal spends only 60-90 minutes per day with visitors.  The rest of the day is spent with trainers or with the other dolphins, swimming around on their own.

I couldn’t help but watch the faces of the people running their hands over the smooth skin of these friendly creatures.  Their expressions were of amazement and joy, which reminded me that hands-on experiences like this one do offer the possibility of the kind of connection that turns people into powerful advocates for animals and their habitats.

So, I decided to go for it.  I gave them a credit card number and was assigned a date and a time to return.  Luckily for me, no one else signed up for my time slot, so I had a trainer and a dolphin to myself for a half hour.

Yann introduced me to Kuokoa, whose name means “independent” (a good buddy for me!).  He told me that he planned for Kuokoa to spend the whole session with me while the other two dolphins “recreated,” but added that he could never be sure if the animals would cooperate with his plans.

Kuokoa weighs 470 pounds and can swim up to 50mph.  Not surprisingly, he feels like solid muscle – which, from his midsection down, he is.  All of his power comes from his fluke; his dorsal fins are used only to provide steerage.  With just one or two whips of his tail, he can create a foot-high wake and leap six feet in the air; this is the kind of strength we are talking about.

His skin felt smooth but subtly textured, and there was something strangely addictive about running my hands up and down its warm surface.  His dorsal fin, too, was fun to touch.  It feels cartilaginous – stiff, and yet pliable.  I was instructed to avoid his head but otherwise was allowed to touch the rest of him throughout the session.

It goes without saying that swimming with Kuokoa was the best part of the time.  I got to swim next to him a number of times; this allowed him to get used to me before he towed me around. “So, you wanna take a ride on him now?” Yann asked after a handful of easy side-by-side swims around the lagoon. Um, yes!  He demonstrated the technique for holding on – one hand around the dolphin’s dorsal fin and the other around his trunk (because his midsection was so thick, my arm didn’t reach all the way around). One of the other trainers went to the other end of the lagoon in order to show Kuokoa where we were swimming to, then Yann asked me if I was ready.  I took a deep breath, Yann blew his whistle, and Kuakoa and I plunged about three feet under the surface of the water with a sizeable splash.

I could barely hold onto him.  Kuokoa’s initial acceleration was so powerful that I nearly lost my bikini bottoms, and, once we were moving, I struggled to keep a hold of his dorsal fin at the speed we traveled.  But, despite my precarious hold, he didn’t shake me.  We were moving with that efficiency and grace I’d always dreamed of, thanks to the power of this set of torso muscles I was attempting to keep my arm around – a power I couldn’t help but sense through my own body.

After one or two “standard” length swims, Yann suggested we try a longer one that forced Kuokoa to swim around a corner.  The dolphins rarely swim that length with clients, in part because there are usually multiple people in a session who need to take turns, but also because most people can’t hold their breath for a longer ride. Yann thought it would be good for Kuokoa to do something out of the ordinary with a visitor, explaining that this type of “shaking up” the routine is exactly the kind of activity that keeps the dolphins engaged and constitutes the “enrichment” they try to provide. He also mentioned that Kuokoa might just stop in confusion and refuse to go any farther.

I took a really deep breath this time, and off we went, traveling the length of the lagoon and then rounding the corner at the end of the floating dock. I was totally focused on the movement of his torso and the rhythm of his kicks until I started to both run out of breath and lose my grip on his slippery dorsal fin.  I grabbed onto him even tighter, determined to make sure my lack of oxygen was not going to stop us.

When we finally emerged next to the trainer, I gasped and let go, and Kuokoa was rewarded with an enormous quantity of fish.  Each dolphin at the center is fed about 35 pounds of fish and squid per day.  Sometimes it is doled out as a reward for performing certain behaviors, but Yann explained that they also like to randomly give and withhold food – another aspect of “keeping them on their toes,” so to speak. It is important to them that the animals never mentally go on autopilot, and varying their rewards helps avoid that.  In this case, though, Kuokoa had successfully completed a task he was rarely asked to do.  He greedily gobbled down his bounty.

As our session was drawing to a close, Kuakoa got rather chatty, issuing a long and complex series of clicks from his blowhole.  Yann pointed out that Lokahi was talking back, and he explained that his sort of communication between the brothers nearly always occured during the last five minutes of the session.  “I’m convinced they have a sense of time,” Yann said.  “He knows we’re about to finish, and I’ve got to believe that he’s telling his brother he’ll be over for free swim soon.”

Kuokoa and Lokahi were born in captivity.  They have never foraged for food on their own and would have no idea how to survive outside of this lagoon.  Hina was born in the wild, but after spending thirty-five of forty of her years in captivity, she wouldn’t make it either.  Yann told me that there have, at times, been huge holes in the netting that delineates the dolphins’ area – holes that opened to the sea.  At no point have they ever tried to swim through them or escape there are in any way.

To me, this is both reassuring and sad.  It’s reassuring because it enables me to think that they don’t want to leave, that they are not being held against their will.  However, it hurts my heart to think that these creatures, which I have often seen off the coast of Santa Cruz swimming and leaping and fishing and socializing in the wide open Monterey Bay, will never get to experience the freedom of the open ocean – the environment they evolved to explore and exploit.

So, should we keep them in captivity or not?  I’m not sure.  To be honest, I’m not sure we should keep ANY animals in captivity – and for me this includes everything from dogs and cats to birds, llamas, ferrets, and snakes.  Instinctively, I recoil at the idea of any creature being confined to a limited space; perhaps because my ability to wander the earth is so precious to me.

I also recognize that we have altered some animals in ways that have essentially made them into species that cannot really live without us.  I’m not sure I support this, but the damage has already been done.  I don’t personally keep pets for this reason, but I can’t stop everyone else from doing it.

Dolphins don’t fall into this category. They aren’t domesticated as a species; they’re only domesticated as individuals, like my friend Kuokoa.  Is this fair to him?  Maybe it is, since he’s never known any other life.  He in unquestionably helping his species by forging connections between dolphins and human beings, and it’s possible his work will contribute to human beings’ increased respect for marine mammals.  And, clearly, he has it pretty good.  A team of trainers keeps his brain and body busy, and he never lacks for food, comfort, or medical attention.  He has some company and a pleasant (albeit really small) area in which to live.

And yet, he will never swim free in the ocean, a pleasure that even I, who was not born in the water, get to enjoy with abandon.

I definitely don’t feel guilty about my decision to swim with Kuokoa.  I think that the dolphin center is doing an amazing job of caring for the dolphins and treating them with respect.  The animals themselves are doing powerful work with their human visitors, and, at the risk of gross anthropomorphism, I’m tempted to say that they “seem happy.”

But I’m still conflicted, and I recognize that this question taps in much deeper issues about the nature of human beings’ relationships with animals, and, for that matter, the non-human environment in general.  This is messy territory for me – territory which I spend a lot of my writing time exploring, and which I don’t for a moment think I will ever fully wrap my head around.

In the meantime, I’m quite certain I will never forget the feeling of speeding through that lagoon with Kuokoa, or the singularity of the experience of shaking his pectoral fin and looking into his alien eyes. I’m not sure what that is worth, but it’s something.







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