Dolphin trainer for a day

With my dreams of being an astronaut dashed, I decided to try another childhood ambition as a dolphin trainer for the day at Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat in Las Vegas.

Things I had no eyed deer about dolphins and dolphin training:

  • They can’t fully sleep as they have to consciously remember to breathe, so they shut off half of their brain
  • They are highly intelligent and can use their imagination
  • Dolphin eyes act independently of each other- so they may look like they are paying full attention but may not be really
  • Like horses and teenagers, they will “play you up” if they think you are a newbie
Photo courtesy: Stefanie Schmidt, The Mirage
Photo courtesy: Stefanie Schmidt, The Mirage

The experience started with a welcome from Stefanie, our facilitator and photographer for the day, and an introduction to our exclusive group of four people. Then it was straight to the underground viewing area to learn more about the very different characters of the dolphins that we would be spending the day with. As the two youngest dolphins charged around the water with boundless energy we learnt that dolphins do indeed never sleep. They have to consciously remember to breathe. If they were fully asleep they would forget, so they only shut off half of their brain at the time.

Over breakfast we learn more about the day and get into our wetsuits and put our whistles around our necks. I’m careful to tuck my whistle into my suit. The dolphins have been trained to find and return anything that falls into the pool rather than eat it, but I am taking no chances. As it is yet another day over 40 degrees in Vegas we keep the suit zips down as long as possible. I have visions of the suit welding itself to me in true superhero style, sticking like tarmac glues to a road.

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Dolphins playing: Photo courtesy: Stefanie Schmidt, The Mirage

Then the real excitement starts, zipped up, we step over the wall to be poolside with some of the trainers. We kneel by the water’s edge as the trainers communicate by hand signals with the dolphins, and myself and the other trainees give the dolphins fish and squid, or a back or tummy rub as a reward. I’d felt a dolphins back before so I knew they felt like rubber, but I was surprised to feel their tummies are much softer and pink coloured. To get a dolphin’s attention the trainer makes eye contact and taps the water for them to come over. With 360 degree vision plus the ability to move one eye independently of another it is easy for the dolphins to be distracted by something else. As a consequence one young dolphin spots his Mum and randomly swims away ignoring a hand signal, then returns happy to get involved again. We get to give a few hand signals on our own and then it is cool off time in the water channel that connects the dolphin pools whilst the trainers have their morning meeting.

Photo courtesy: Stefanie Schmidt, The Mirage
Photo courtesy: Stefanie Schmidt, The Mirage

There is a gate at both ends of the water channel and, as curious about us as we are about them, the dolphins take it in turns to check us out – putting their noses on the gate and looking through. Whilst in the channel, lying with our ears beneath the water is like entering a whole new secret world, the dolphins are chattering to each other in what sounds like a series of rapid clicks inaudible above the water. When the dolphins are given a hand signal that involves jumping or moving in sequence they communicate with each other first. But apparently two of the girls don’t get on and don’t communicate so their moves are pretty messy with one going one way and one the other. Each dolphin also has their own distinct whistle or voice like a human which identifies it amongst the other dolphins. Interestingly, despite having an advanced sense of hearing they actually have no sense of smell.

Next we go into the freezing cold ice room to wash the food buckets out under scalding water to make sure they are fully clean and there are no scales left in the bucket to cause problems. Each dolphin has their own name carved into the metal bucket and a set amount of fish and squid that they are fed each day to ensure they stay healthy and get exactly how much they need. Our buckets are checked and I am the only one to not get a 100% score – with one scale remaining on the otherwise clean bucket. I have to admit, my theory is usually if you are asked to do a job you don’t like, do it badly, that way you don’t get asked again, (like ironing a shirt badly at the start of a new relationship) so I was secretly hoping that was the end of my dolphin bucket washing career.

Photo courtesy: Stefanie Schmidt, The Mirage
Photo courtesy: Stefanie Schmidt, The Mirage

Buckets cleaned and refilled, the next part of the day is the highlight for me. We return poolside to get into the water with Lightning – one of the older dolphins. Each of us takes it in turn to swim into the middle of the pool and wait for Lightning to swim towards us, then grabbing his dorsal fin we swim alongside him back to the side of the pool. This is a rare opportunity to see and feel how he moves in the water and how gentle and graceful this 500 pound giant is. Lightning is one of the older dolphins and apparently the younger dolphins in training for this manoeuvre are slightly more excitable and go off at rate of knots with the guest attached. We then get a kiss from our dolphin. This was the only part of the day where I had thoughts about should I be doing this and the whole animals in captivity debate. As an avid animal lover and quite an activist in my student days, I was very alert to their conditions but I couldn’t fault the care these dolphins receive. The instructors are degree qualified with a real passion and interest in animal preservation. Nothing is choreographed, there is no dolphin show at any point of the day, the dolphins are communicated with on a one to one basis and if they choose not to do something then they are free to do their own thing. If they do react to a hand signal then they get positive reinforcement in a number of different ways, each dolphin motivated by different things – be it fish, squid, tummy rubs, or extra exercise. Like humans, one dolphin’s motivator is a turn off for another and what is a reward one day can become boring after awhile.

Photo courtesy: Stefanie Schmidt, The Mirage
Photo courtesy: Stefanie Schmidt, The Mirage

After getting to know our group a bit better over lunch, over quite a long discussion on Donald Trump, we start another session with different dolphins and instructors. The dolphins are trained to voluntarily give blood samples, have sonograms, and be weighed on scales. It was also mentioned that they voluntarily give urine samples but I didn’t figure out how that happens. I’m presuming they don’t pee in a bottle. Whilst some dolphins are getting their sonograms from the medic, our dolphin is given the signal for “do something different” – this signal means they can do whatever trick they like and ours does a flip. After getting her squid reward, she is then given the same signal again, which means do what you want but it has to be different to last time. We then give the dolphin the universal sign for an arm fart and the dolphin responds with a corresponding noise from her blow hole and I can’t help but laugh like a little kid and want to do it again. We give them a few more signals and a bit like horses, if they know you are a newbie they will see what they can get away with, and sure enough my dolphin makes a little less effort than others.

Photo courtesy: Stefanie Schmidt, The Mirage
Photo courtesy: Stefanie Schmidt, The Mirage

Next it is back to the staff room to learn more about how the day’s roster is put together and to see how all of the meds and exercise for the day are meticulously logged. Each dolphin is graded for their engagement at each session, whether they paid attention, that they seemed healthy and happy. As one of our dolphins was both distracted and made less effort with the trainee trainers this is all noted and he doesn’t get the perfect score.

It was at this point of the day that disappointedly I had to leave as I was flying out in three hours time back to Sydney – despite leaving early I felt like I had had a really full and fun day. After a quick shower so that I didn’t smell like a dolphin on the flight home I admit I snuck in to see the white tigers and spotted Siegfried talking to visitors, as I hear he often does.

When I grow up I might not have a future career as an astronaut but I would definitely like to be a dolphin trainer.

I did the Dolphin Trainer for the day program, but other options available include yoga with dolphins (the dolphins are behind you in the underground viewing area, not doing the moves) or painting with dolphins.

This is not a sponsored post. This represents my personal opinion.

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