Jan kissing dolphin

Dances With Dolphins
Dolphin Discovery offers a once in a lifetime experience

by Jan Critchley

Photos by Keith Semple

Jan swimming with the dolphins

Having worked on a charter boat for a couple of years, I had seen dolphins before – usually on offshore trips between Tortola and St. Martin. I will never forget one particular evening, we were returning to Tortola after charter – the sun was just setting on the horizon, and suddenly we were joined by a pod of dolphins, many of them youngsters, who played around the bows of our catamaran – it was like a dance as they breached, dove and swam together in a synchronized performance. It was a blissful sight and a memory that will stay with me forever.

When the opportunity came my way to swim with the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery, I literally jumped at the chance. I must admit that I had harbored thoughts that to keep these incredible creatures in captivity was not how nature intended. However after spending the day with the dolphins and the dedicated team who work with them every day – I could see first hand how well cared for and loved they are. For some people this would be the only opportunity they would ever have to be close to dolphins, let alone swim with them.

So, it was with an open mind, and only the slightest trepidation that I set off for my Dolphin Discovery experience. When I got there, I was met by Shakti Segura, the Marketing and Sales Manager, who was going to make sure I got to experience dolphin magic first hand.

Shakti explained, Dolphin Discovery is the number one swim with dolphins company in the world and we have nine dolphinariums – seven in Mexico and two here in the Caribbean. Tortola is an important location for us as it serves the cruise ship market from both the BVI and the nearby USVI, although in the low season we rely on the marinas and hotels for our business.

Just before my swim, I was introduced to Raul Novelo, the head trainer, who has been in the business for around 15 years. He explained that they currently have 12 adult Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins and two calves in residence. Speaking about the new additions to the extended family, he said, Once the offspring are born, we put the mothers and calves separate from the other dolphins in a maternity enclosure and they are closely monitored to ensure they are nursing properly and that all is well.

Jan swimming with the dolphins

The two young dolphins, who at the time of my visit had yet to be named, will stay with their mothers, Ayla and Maggie, for around one year, during which time they learn to eat solid food – specific varieties of fish such as capelin and herrings that give them both the water and nutrition that they need. Around six months after eating solid food, and having got used to human contact with the trainers, the young dolphins will then start taking part, little by little, in the swim programs with small groups of people. There is lots of positive re-enforcement given to all the dolphins all the time such as petting, toys and of course, lots of fish!

So it was now time for the swim, and Reidar Velarde, the senior trainer with over 15 years experience led me down to the maternity enclosure and I realized that I was about to enter the water with Ayla and Maggie and their calves. Interestingly, the two young ones were already showing different behaviors, with one of them staying extremely close to its mother whereas the other was quite happy to swim around by itself.

The dolphins are trained to react to various signals given by the trainers, so they know what action is expected of them. The first thing we did was to stand on a platform in the water, where I could stroke the dolphin's nose – the huge mammal then turned on her side to let me stroke her body. They shed their skin an amazing ten times a day, and feel extremely soft to the touch.

Then it was time to enter the water where I experienced all the elements of the Royal Swim which is the most dynamic of all the programs, so we did the Kiss, the Dolphin Handshake, the Dorsal Tow – and the highlight of the day, the famous Footpush. Once in position, the two dolphins pushed me by my feet as I tried to keep a Superman pose! Easier said than done and not very elegant I can tell you, but lots of fun.

I was just ready to come out of the water, when Elwin Lee another trainer called me over to another enclosure to meet Venus. Elwin who has had around ten years experience, wanted me to meet their next soon-to-be mother, Venus. As she was literally days away from giving birth, the heavily pregnant dolphin was in her own enclosure and under constant watch from the trainers and in particular, the head vet, Juan Jose Franco.

Juan is permanently based in Tortola and oversees the well being of all the dolphins. He uses a preventative approach which, in addition to making sure they all have a good diet and watching their behaviors – has the dolphins undergoing regular medical check-ups including blood tests.

He said, Clearly, Venus, Ayla, Maggie and the calves are constantly watched and like all the other dolphins, they get daily physical examinations where the trainers check for anything unusual. They all have their own personalities, and with all the different ages and genders they can play rough,­ so it is necessary to check them all – every day.

The dolphins generally spend only two hours of the day with guests, and the team is careful to keep the groups low in number – around ten people per group is the average.

Raul concluded, We need to ensure that we not only give them the best care but they also must be kept stimulated and their minds challenged. We do this through training and regular interaction. This regimen along with the daily physical exams and personalized diet, is designed to keep them happy; captive dolphins also have a longer life span than those in the wild.

For me, it was an amazing experience and I learnt a lot about these incredible creatures. The team are caring and knowledgeable and clearly feel fortunate to be working with these friendly mammals – and when you see their playful antics, you can just see what intelligent and fun loving creatures they are.