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Bottlenose to Nose: Touched by a Dolphin

By C.J. Houtchens
The Washington Post
Sunday, January 25, 1998; Page E01
   


When I first arrive to swim with the dolphins at Bermuda's Southampton Princess Hotel, I have a sinking feeling I've come a long, expensive way for a bad case of deja vu. Sure, the beach is spectacular. But the catwalk of docks crossing the lagoon, the vast canvas sun canopies and, especially, the tanned young crew, costumed in jazzy matching Speedos and toting insulated coolers of feeder fish, look too much like show time at Sea World for me. Been there. Done that. Want more.

The whole idea of coming out here, after all, is to get into the water, to touch the animals, experience firsthand the fabled rapport between species. I want what the brochure for this program, Dolphin Quest, had promised: "a rare and powerful moment . . . an emotional encounter . . . a gateway to the world of the dolphin." Unfortunately, what I don't yet understand is that in order to swing open, the gateway has to be as solidly structured as a brick house.

On the dock, Dolphin Quest director of operations Michelle Hammond helps fasten my life vest, tucking the straps carefully so they won't float free and scratch or startle the dolphins. Then, with the three other women in my group, I step down and sit on a narrow, algae-slickened deck, my rear and legs submerged in the lagoon. Hammond stands just behind us and signals to a colleague across the cove. He flings an arm in our direction . . . Go! . . . and a pair of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins silently torpedo underwater toward us and erupt, smiling, right at our feet. We burst into cheers and applause.

"Say hello," Hammond enthuses, "to . . ." somebody and somebody else, whose dolphin names I totally miss. I'm not listening. I am grinning idiotically and sending concentrated telepathic messages to the dolphin nearest me (I learn later he is called Khyber): "Choose me." Neither am I listening when Hammond tells us to make a platform for the dolphin, as she had demonstrated a few moments earlier. "Hold out one hand like this," she had said, extending her left palm upward over the water. "Then you can gently stroke the dolphin with your other hand."

The woman at my left follows the instructions perfectly. Khyber glides toward her and places his chin on her palm. I keep one hand in my lap and lean way over to slide the other along the dolphin's side. His flesh has the taut texture of a zaftig figure stuffed into a wet suit.

"C.J.," Hammond says, momentarily gaining my attention with a slightly chastening tone. "Don't let the animal train you. You train the animal." I don't want to train the animal, I want to be wild and free. But I do as I am told.

I do as I am told, and, of course, suddenly it happens: I slip through the threshold of another world. I stretch my left hand under the dolphin's throat. Khyber nuzzles slightly closer. The eye on the left side of his head -- toward me -- is open, just above the water. It is a small eye for such a large animal, about as big as a persimmon and hooded by thick rubbery lids, top and bottom. I can see its roundness and liquid color, mottled dark blue and black, like a satellite photo of Earth or a particularly beautiful hand-blown marble. I raise my sunglasses and gaze deeply into this one extraordinary eye.

This feels awkward at first, as though I am trying to decide where to focus with a cross-eyed conversational partner . . . but Khyber gazes back. In the dolphin's eye, I see emotion, recognition, kinship. His look says that although he is merely doing tricks for the others, he is showing his old, old soul to me.

Paradoxically, in the same way that the precise, long-practiced and very concrete actions of magician and assistant create breathtaking illusions, by doing my part of the routine correctly, I have released the dolphin and myself into an uninhibited shared place where we can briefly -- magnificently -- commune.

The effect is so tranquilizing that I drift for some time in a placid fog, still following instructions, but not at all processing what is happening. (Afterward, I have to ask Hammond and my neighbor for details of what we did for the next 10 minutes.) Only much later, with distance and analysis, do I began to understand the structure underlying my free-floating experience. The Dolphin Quest encounter is actually as meticulously choreographed as any Sea World demonstration. Trainers cue the animals to perform a series of carefully coached tricks, letting human participants join in on the signals. A smart salute of our right hands sends Khyber and his comrade in a race to the center of the cove where they leap skyward. Forearms held straight out are an invitation to what Hammond calls "a dolphin dance." Khyber approaches, treading water with his powerful tail, letting us each gently hold a flipper. (The flipper, I recall, has the approximate feel and color of an institutional doormat.) We wave. Khyber floats on his back and waggles a flipper in return.

Of course, this is just the sort of show biz stuff, that, along with news reports of rowdy dolphins physically or erotically assaulting humans in the water, provokes critics. In the States, swim-with-the-dolphin programs survived an early 1990s campaign against them by a Florida group called the Dolphin Freedom Foundation. Today, the small industry (three programs in the Florida Keys; another at Hawaii's Hilton Waikoloa Village run by Dolphin Quest; and one planned, bizarrely but appropriately, at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, home of illusionists and tiger-tamers Siegfried and Roy) is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Animal Welfare Act.

A densely typeset five-page amendment now pending final approval includes requirements that dolphins at all times have a "choice" of whether to swim-with-the-humans with sufficient "sanctuary" and "buffer" zones to retreat to. Dolphins who misbehave must be removed immediately from the swimming area and the incident reported to the USDA. The proposed rule also requires all animals to "be adequately conditioned and trained for interaction" to protect the swimmers.

"It's all in what they're conditioned and used to," says Hammond, an unflappable, indelibly freckled marine biologist, who hires and schools the Dolphin Quest Bermudian staff. "You can have a trainer that allows a lot more to occur than another trainer and you could accidentally reinforce negative behavior. What we look for in training our trainers is they're managing the precursors to those kind of behaviors and they're learning the animals. They're not just doing tricks and throwing fish, they're looking at the social scene."

When my foursome leaves the dock and climbs down some craggy rocks into the lagoon's shallows to put on snorkel masks and feed Khyber little fishes underwater, we first stand together in water about up to our rib cages.

Hammond gives a short pep talk about protecting marine mammals and the environment, while a colleague, known in the parlance as the "B" trainer, holds Khyber's attention a few yards away.

Young, male and exuberant, the B trainer loses command. The 300-pound dolphin begins swimming in fast, wide circles just off the bottom of the shallows, skimming through the arm's length of space between me and the woman standing at my side. On the second pass, the last whip of Khyber's tail barely clips my calf. The impact thwacks sharply, like bumping into furniture in the dark. Catching the episode, Hammond reins in her colleague with an even-toned reminder: He regains the dolphin's attention with a signal that eludes me.

Oddly, the incident neither bruises nor alarms me. In fact, I stay in my relaxed altered state until the Dolphin Quest cameraman wades over to take souvenir "interactive" photos. Hammond again demonstrates how to make a platform with one palm, supporting Khyber's chin, so we can kiss him on the nose. Click. (It was this pose in a small black-and-white New Yorker ad, featuring a classically statuesque, serene-faced model, that had lured me here in the first place.) Hammond makes an underwater cradle of her arms. Khyber floats slightly above it, not really resting his weight, and preens. His neck, flippers, and tail stretch above the surface. Click.

The say-cheesiness of this shotmaking so exposes its hidden mirrors and seams that by the time my turn rolls around, I have finally snapped out of my fugue. As I make my arm cradle, I deliberately smile toward Khyber and compose myself for the camera. Pursing up and putting a smacker on his snout I feel as goofily self-conscious as I would primping in a swirling white halter dress astride a subway grate. There is no connection between us now. I'm not even certain it is the same dolphin, although Hammond confirms he is.

Later, reviewing images for sale at the instant print computer in the Dolphin Quest gift shop, I am astonished to see that the photographer had also captured the earlier moment of my enchantment. I buy the preening pose for the record; I get the candid because I love it. Every time I look at it, I see the after-image of the dolphin's eye with such clarity that I begin to think I had gotten a photo of that, too. I am surprised when I get home and realize I didn't.

C.J. Houtchens last wrote about Cape Cod's Buttonbush Trail for the Travel section.

Details: Bermuda Dolphin Swims

GETTING THERE: Numerous airlines offer connecting service to Bermuda from this area; US Airways flies nonstop from BWI and is quoting a round-trip fare of about $350, with restrictions.

WHO'S RUNNING THE SHOW: The swim-with-the-dolphins program at Bermuda's Southampton Princess is a partnership between the hotel and Dolphin Quest -- the same organization that runs encounters at the Hilton Waikoloa Village and the Beachcomber Parkroyal in French Polynesia. In November 1996, seven Atlantic bottlenose dolphins from a defunct marine mammal exhibit at a Florida zoo were flown to Bermuda and took up residence at the Southampton Princess. (This September, the oldest, a female in her thirties, died. The normal lifespan of a dolphin in the wild is less than 20 years.)

GETTING IN THE SWIM: Demand is high. The program runs year-round; to be guaranteed a place in the 30-minute adult encounter program, particularly during summer (May through August), make reservations when you book your room at either the Southampton Princess or its sister hotel in Hamilton, the Princess. Remaining spots are filled by a daily lottery. Call Princess Hotels at 1-800-223-1818 for reservations and updates.

WHERE TO STAY: The Southampton Princess is a luxurious, full-service hotel with matching rates. From now through April 18, a three-night Royal Dolphin Encounter package -- including room with balcony, full breakfast, guaranteed Dolphin Encounter reservation, souvenir T-shirt and photo, unlimited tennis and one round of golf daily -- runs $369 to $449 per person double, or $626 to $787 single, depending on the view.

If you can get a guaranteed reservation for the encounter in advance, consider booking one night -- rates start at $160 single or double for the room only; adding on the encounter is $75 per person, plus $25 for the souvenir photo. Forget the T-shirt. Decamp to a less expensive guest house or housekeeping cottage for the rest of your stay.

Bermuda's Central Reservations Services (1-800-637-4116, http://www.BermudaReservations .com) found me a large room with private bath and deluxe continental breakfast in Oxford House, a nicely furnished town house two blocks from Hamilton's harbor, for $110, single, per night. Doubles run $131 to $145.

INFORMATION: Bermuda Department of Tourism, 310 Madison Ave., Suite 201, New York, N.Y. 10017, 1-800-223-6106, http://www.bermudatourism.com.

-- C.J. Houtchens

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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