My day as a dolphin trainer

Over the last couple of weeks my local PBS station has aired new episodes of the series Nature, featuring the giants of the ocean, whales and dolphins. The episodes are packed with gorgeous images of these amazing creatures and incredible facts about their lives in the ocean. Watching the underwater photographers get up close and personal with the whales leaves me breathless.

The idea of the ocean’s vastness, its unknowable depths, the unlivable environment, and the dangerous wildlife combine to create a reverent fear in me. Standing before it, I am humbled by its greatness, moved by its mystery.

Mysteries, though, call out to be explored. Once curiosity is awakened, it demands to be heard. Although I will never be found diving deep into the water to film giant humpback whales fighting over a mate, this past November, I heeded my curiosity and took the plunge at the the Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage Resort in Las Vegas as a Dolphin Trainer for a Day.

In spite of his name, Lightning was incredibly patient. He was the oldest of the males and did a nice job of keeping the other adolescent males in check. I was thankful he allowed me to get my photo taken with him.

The Dolphin Habitat has four connected pools, made up of 2.5 million gallons of water, a coral reef, and sandy bottom, creating a nurturing environment for the family of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins which live there. Even though this is Las Vegas, the purpose of the habitat is not entertainment. It is education. There are no shows put on. The dolphins are there to introduce us to our oceanic neighbors so that maybe, in getting to know them better, we’ll grasp our responsibility for keeping their world safe. The professional caregivers use positive reinforcement to train the dolphins solely so they can be kept safe and healthy while they teach us about their world and how it connects to ours.

One of the professional caregivers shows me where they take blood from the tail fin to monitor this dolphin's health. If the dolphin in this picture had shown any sign of distress, we would not have continued.

The Dolphin Trainer for a Day program allows a small group of dreamers (for we were all there with big dreams) to get up close and personal with these 500-pound mammals. We were provided wet suits and thorough lessons on how to approach and work with the dolphins for their safety and our own. Respect was the name of the game. The professional caregivers do not force the dolphins to do anything. The dolphins are never punished for not doing what is wished of them. Instead, they are rewarded when they do something right. As a result, it is important for trainers to have a deep well of patience.

Don, one of the head trainers, teaches us more about how to care for a dolphin.

Throughout our day, we were in and out of the water a number of times engaging with the dolphins. Duchess, the matriarch of the group, allowed us to look at and touch her belly. We learned about how the mothers give birth and feed their babies while swimming. It was fascinating to learn that the babies have little fringes on their tongues which lock in on the mother’s teat like a zipper so they can keep moving and eat at the same time.

Here we are being taught about how dolphins mate and have their babies. Duchess, the matriarch, allows us to touch her belly and learn about how she cares for her baby.

Giving Duchess a little kiss.

It was a lot of fun to get in the water with Duchess, to touch and even kiss her, but we learned quickly that most of a professional trainers’ day is filled with chores involving basic attention and care for the animals. After our introduction to Duchess, we were led into the room where the food is prepared. This room is kept cold, like a refrigerator, to keep bacteria from growing. This is the room where fish and other food staples are processed, so if the room was warmer, bacteria could grow and cause the dolphins to get sick.

Trainers assigned the task of processing the food must arrive well before the sun rises to clean food buckets and prepare them with the appropriate kind and amount of food for each dolphin. For this particular task, it helps if you have a penchant for perfection. The buckets must be scrubbed completely free of all fish parts, including their very sticky and translucent scales, which often hide out in the damp, stainless steel bucket. Our leader was adept at both seeing and feeling those little fish scales and she made sure the buckets we scrubbed were thoroughly prepared for the next round of food.

There is a scale on site which allows the caregivers to weigh each dolphin, but if that scale is out of commission for some reason, they can use measurements of the animal to figure the weight. Here, Duchess is being trained to be around a measuring tape.

Caregivers track everything about the dolphins. There are charts in the main office detailing what is tracked each day: what each dolphin ate, how much they weigh, and notes on behavior and training. Other things, like blood samples, are tracked on a less regular basis, to look at the same kinds of things we track on ourselves in order to prevent and diagnose disease.

For example, they guesstimated that one of the male dolphins, Lightning, was in his mid-30s. Apparently, that is pretty old for a dolphin. They wanted to see how he is doing at this stage in his life, reproductively speaking. So, I went with Don, one of the head caregivers, and another Trainer for a Day, to assist in taking a sperm sample from Lightning. What I learned was incredible.

The dolphin brain is one of the most complex brains in the world, in some ways even more complex than humans. In this instance, I discovered that when male dolphins ejaculate, they can decide whether they will provide sperm or not. On this day, Lightning decided not to. Instead, he gave us a sample of some other liquid, which I will not detail here. Rather than get upset that Lightning had not provided what was expected, Don gently sent Lightning on his way–without a rewarding treat–with the understanding that they would try again another day. Lightning was not punished for not doing what they wanted, but he wasn’t rewarded either.

We attempt, without success, to retrieve a sample.

This is all part of a professional trainer’s day. But, like with the sperm sample, I found myself fighting a juvenile embarrassment at first. My next task was just as personal and, therefore, started out with no fewer skittish nerves. My job was to assist in taking a fecal sample.

In both cases I was there mostly as an observer and to hold the sample cup for the professional. I never actually got up close enough to touch body parts or bodily fluids. Still, at first I felt somehow intrusive, both to the dolphin and to the caregivers who do this everyday. Yet, in each situation, my embarrassment was quickly replaced with deep respect for both the professionals working and the dolphins waiting.  All of the professional caregivers I met are the epitome of respectful, to the dolphins and to one another. Their focus and sense of responsibility helped me to focus as well. Because of this, I learned so much about the biology and psychology of dolphins. What started out as childish intimidation turned into fascination and eagerness to help. I remember wishing desperately that I knew more so that I could have been more helpful.

Getting a fecal sample. I kept a respectful distance so as to keep the dolphin from being nervous about my presence. Prior to this photo, he had flinched ever so slightly. The professionals backed off, let him rest, and then tried again with success.

Our day as trainers was not limited, however, to scrubbing buckets and taking samples. We were able to participate in lots of fun things as well. We were given opportunities to touch the dolphins’ fins and bellies. We had our pictures taken with them. We also got to feed them, learning specific methods for getting the fish into the dolphin’s mouth such that it was easy for them to swallow it. My favorite part of the day was swimming out to the middle of one of the pools and being pulled back to shore by one of the dolphins.

Riding to shore being pulled by a dolphin.

All smiles with my buddy, Cosmo.

As for all those samples collected throughout the day, we were taken into the lab where the caregivers prepare the samples for doctors to look at and diagnose any issues that may come up.

Don, one of the lead caregivers, shows us how they prepare the samples taken each day to monitor each dolphin's health.

Waving goodbye to Duchess.

As you can see, the life of a dolphin trainer is not always glamorous. Yet, there is something immeasurably rewarding about it at the same time. When I left at the end of the day, I walked away wishing I could do it every single day of my life. It was a day I will never forget.

To participate in this program, call 702.792.7889, or visit the website for more information. Participants must be over 13 years old. Reservations are highly recommended as only four trainers are allowed each day.

The cost is $550 per person. According to their website, the fee varies seasonally. Each trainer is allowed up to two observers, who are able to go behind the scenes, participate in breakfast and lunch, and get their picture taken with a dolphin as well. Observers are $150 per person.

My parents came along to be my observers. Seen here, they got their photo taken with Lightning. They also were able to go behind the scenes, having breakfast and lunch with us and going into the lab to learn more about these amazing new friends.

Upon completion of the program, each Trainer for a Day receives a souvenir polo shirt, souvenir ball cap, an 8×10 photo with a dolphin, a photo CD with hundreds of photos taken throughout the day, and a certificate of completion. Also included in the price is everything you will need, including a wetsuit, a continental breakfast, and a three-course lunch on a private patio.

The four Trainers for a Day and the professionals who taught us all we now know about our oceanic cousins.

More photos from my day day as a dolphin trainer can be seen in the slideshow below. All the photos shared here were provided by the Mirage Dolphin Habitat Trainer for a Day program.

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