After my internship at Dolphin Research Center in late 2007, I had the opportunity to do another internship at Dolphins Plus in Key Largo. It was really neat to see how very different two dolphin facilities can be. My favorite thing about Dolphins Plus was that they were much more relaxed than the Research Center was. Almost every time I walked down on the dock a trainer would say “Hey, will you jump in the water and help me with this training?” Dolphin Research Center was much more exclusive as to who they would allow in the water to assist with training.
One of my first days at Dolphins Plus, I decided to go down on a dock to meet/observe two dolphins I had never met before. Their names were Fiji and Squirt, mother and son. I sat Indian style next to the trainer who was free feeding the two. I was watching them, admiring their obvious love for each other, when they both swam over to where I was perched on the dock and reached their heads up to touch my legs. The trainer told me to put my legs in the water to see what they would do. They swam by over and over again, nuzzling my legs. It was the dolphin equivalent of when a cat rubs itself on your legs, making sure every inch of it’s body is touched by you. The trainer laughed out loud and exclaimed “I’ve never seen them do this to anyone before, much less a stranger! I think you should get in. I think they want you to get in.” She didn’t have to ask me twice. I grabbed a mask and jumped in.
Once in the water, I became their toy, their center of attention. I didn’t have to tread water to stay afloat, they made sure I didn’t slip under. Fiji and Squirt pressed up on either side of me while I rubbed their bellies and backs. I couldn’t stop smiling. I yelled over to the trainer “I want to dive down with them, is that ok?” She yelled back “do what you want!”
The three of us dove down to the bottom of the lagoon and explored their underwater world. I could feel their echolocation buzzing through my body, bringing every inch of me to life. It amazed me how they made direct eye contact with me as I swam between them. I have never felt more connected to any animal, or human being for that matter, than I did at that moment. As if the dolphins sensed that the air in my lungs needed to be expelled, they suddenly disappeared from my sides. It startled me when out of nowhere I felt two rock-hard rostrums firmly planted on the bottoms of my feet. I knew what was coming, and I would have screamed with delight if I could have! In a matter of seconds the three of us bolted from the bottom of the lagoon and broke the water’s surface. Fiji on one foot and Squirt on the other catapulted me from the water with unbelievable force. Remember when you were little, playing in the ocean, and your dad would throw you up in the air as hard as he could? This was about 3,000 times better than that. I looked over at the dock and the trainer was laughing at the fun the three of us were having. After a few more backrubs and dorsal pulls, Fiji and Squirt dropped me off at the dock. Exhausted, I threw myself on the dock and looked at the trainer, completely speechless. We both were. What had just happened? I thought to myself “I think I just had the best day of my life, and I will never ever forget this.”
Even retelling the story right now I can’t believe it. I feel like it must have been a dream. It really was my wildest dream come true. I am forever grateful to Fiji and Squirt for allowing me to take part in their dolphin playtime. For 30 indescribable minutes they let me feel like one of their own, a true pod-mate.