Monday, September 1, 2008

Dolphin Lab

When I was in my early 20's, I decided to go back to community college part time. I had been working for the same insurance company for a few years, and they agreed to let me go part time at work. I moved back in with my mother to save money, and get some education. In the second semester I threw in one class that had no reason for being on my agenda - Ocean Sciences. I've always been drawn by the ocean, but it also terrifies me.

I have to say I was enamored with this semester. I was getting tutored by a friend who was in the same algebra class I was in - and it finally started making sense to me in a way that it did not when I was in high school. My brain has never been able to comprehend math, and I was doing it, and passing. Also, I was doing exceptionally well in my honors level creative writing class, and also in Ocean Sciences - much to my surprise!

And then my world came crashing down around me when my brother died on March 28, 1993. The only class I went back to was Ocean Sciences,
because another teacher in the same department had started a little program called Dolphin Lab. If you signed up for Dolphin Lab, you had to pay a large fee, but they took care of all the details for a week long working vacation in Florida - for which you got 2 credits. I had originally hoped my brother would have been able to go on this trip with me, he would have really loved it. I decided to do it anyway, alone.

The fee included air fare both ways, a dormitory style sleeping arrangement, and meals. Best of all, we interacted for 5 of the 7 days with dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center, DRC, on Grassy Key, Florida.

DRC, was home to the 6 dolphins that played Flipper on the television show. This is one of the most humane places that a dolphin can live. While many of the dolphins are born there, many came from places where they had been neglected or abused, or they needed medical treatment that only DRC could provide. One old girl had been a Navy experiment, quite a few had survived shark attacks in the wild.

This facility does not keep their dolphins in captivity, in the traditional sense of the word. Each enclosure has a low fence that allows the seawater, and fish, to come and go freely. Those low fences could not possibly keep in a high diving dolphin, should they choose to leave. The fences are there mainly to keep out sharks.

If a hurricane is coming in, the staff opens the fences and encourages their dolphins to swim out to sea where they have a better chance of surviving. Most of them return, although when I went in 1993, one had not returned from the last hurricane. There were reports of an incredibly friendly dolphin in the area for months after, but she eventually joined a wild pod and moved on.

They try to keep their enclosures as close to what they would have out in the wild. The biggest enclosure is for mothers, teenage females, and the very young. Other enclosures have a couple of adolescent males, as they would do in the wild by going off on their own in twos or threes; or a matriarch on her own not wanting to be bothered by the youngsters.

There are so many amazing things about dolphins that I learned on this trip. One is that they name themselves. They have what is called a "signature whistle". A female is able to give herself whatever whistle name she wants for herself, although it is very often similar to her mother's signature whistle. A male, on the other hand, adopts his mother's signature whistle for his own. That way, in the wild if a couple of boy dolphins come across a pod of females, and they're all like, "how YOU doin'?", once they find out each other's names, they're all like, "ew, you're my brother", or "ew, you're my mother".

Dolphins don't do incest. The really interesting part is that they are the only mammal other than humans to have consensual homosexual relations. The adolescent boys break off into those pods of two or three, and if they don't meet up with any hot dolphin girls, they use each other for target practice. In the words of one of my teachers, "it's really long". In the words of one of the trainers at DRC, "do NOT touch them DOWN THERE!". They are highly sexual creatures.

I really wanted to know what would happen if I Touched Them Down There, but I didn't. I was afraid I would get kicked out and be stuck in Grassy Key, Florida. Which is 90 miles south of Miami, and 54 miles north of Key West.

I learned so much while I was down there. They taught us how to treat the dolphins with such respect - not that it was hard to do. Each one has their own personality, shy, playful, mischievous, funny. And they are attention hogs! They love to be talked to, or sung to. They chatter at you, and show off. They are amazing, intelligent creatures. If you ever want proof, see the video at the bottom from the beginning of the movie, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

We learned how to approach them, how to hide vitamins and pills in their food, how to feed them, how to give them hand signals and commands. Best of all, we got to touch them and be affectionate with them and love them - and get in the water with them. I fell utterly and completely in love! There is so very much more to say about that trip, and DRC in general. I could just go on and on, but I won't.

The second I got home, I started planning my move down there. I quit my job, pulled all my money out of my 401k and started packing. I kinda lost my mind after my brother died, and for some reason I really felt at peace when I was down there. I decided I was going to become a marine mammologist and work at DRC and live happily ever after. More on that another time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love it...what a wonderful opportunity. I'm sorry that it took your brother dying to do that. :-(