Swimming with dolphins is hard work! And well worth the effort. When I say “swimming”, I mean hands motionless close to the body and feet kicking like crazy. But, I’m getting ahead of myself in the story.
Our experience at Dolphins Plus this weekend in Key Largo was so terrific, it’s almost difficult to put into words.
We had a choice between a Natural Swim and a Structured Swim. The latter is where the trainer gives commands and the dolphin interacts with you in a a trained/structured manner followed by a reward (think Sea World). The Natural Swim is where you get to swim with them during their downtime between Structured Swims. Our trainer put it this way: In the Structured Swim the dolphins are there for our entertainment, in the Natural Swim we are in their environment for their entertainment. The Natural Swim sounded more our style, and we’re very glad that we picked that option.
One of the many things we enjoyed about the experience was the wealth of information we gathered about dolphins -their pods, behaviors, anatomy, etc.
- The female offspring usually stay with the mother even when grown. If they do leave they’ll come back when they’re having a baby so grandma can help out.
- When a calf is born the mother creates a unique “call” for the female offspring, it becomes like their name. Male offspring often leave the mother, so they’re given the same call as the mother which can help with identification later on.
- With their sonar they can distinguish things in our bodies like metal or a baby! A high school teacher from Ohio has been bringing kids to Florida on a field trip with this fun side trip for 12 or so years. During one of the first trips a dolphin was swimming repeatedly around the belly of a woman and looking right at her belly. The trainer said, “you’re pregnant, aren’t you?” to which the woman replied, “How did you know?” The trainer answered, “I didn’t, the dolphin knows.” They can hear that second heartbeat and see the fetus in 3D with sonar. The sound bounces back and is received in their jaw, and the signal is transmitted to the brain. So interesting!
During our briefing we were asked not to reach out and touch the dolphins during the swim (since this is their downtime) and were encouraged to simulate dolphin body language by swimming alongside them and diving underwater with them. Yeah, right! With our snorkel gear on we swam around arms tucked in tight (so tempting to touch them!). Four dolphins and two dolphin wannabes in a (roughly) 60ft x 200ft contained area. The trainer would alert us when a dolphin was approaching and yell, “Go, go, go!”, meaning swim faster so you can swim next to the dolphin. Jim did a pretty good job keeping up with them, but we were both beat after our 30 minutes in the water!
Several times during our swim we both had the experience of a dolphin swimming up and looking at us, brushing up against us, acting very curious about us. The trainer also encouraged us to sing or make noises because different kinds of stimulation are interesting to the dolphins. That’s when Jim learned I can also laugh through my snorkel! While we were underwater we could hear the clicks and chirps they make in communicating, too, and we really felt like part of the pod.
When our time was up we were sitting on the edge of the dock, catching our breath. Jim took off his fins and had his feet dangling in the water. One of the dolphins swam up and gently nibbled on his foot as if to say, “Hey – we’re done here and toes should not be dangling!”
Before and after our Natural Swim we were able to observe as other guests had their Structured Swim. From our short time there it was obvious to see that dolphins have unique personalities. Elvis is a chatterbox and loves to let everyone know when he’s done something. Gracie likes to swim fast, which the trainers use as her reward.
Another part of this facility is dolphin therapy offered through Island Dolphin Care. This is a not-for-profit organization, located on site at Dolphins Plus. IDC’s goal is to provide a therapeutic, recreational environment that focuses on the emotional and physical well being of the participant and their family members. During our visit they also had veterans with family members from the Wounded Warrior Project enjoying the dolphin experience.
We enjoyed every moment at Dolphins Plus, and left only when it became closing time. The dolphins love watching people come and go in one area along a railing. As Jim and I were standing there trying to tear ourselves away, one of the dolphins waved a pectoral fin. It’s like she knew we were leaving the pod and was saying goodbye.
NOTE: I am not a marine biologist, nor do I play one one TV. Information relayed here is not intended to be a scientific study. If you have scientific information to add we’d love to see your comments! : )