During a recent visit to the Georgia Aquarium, where dolphins perform as part of an entertainment show, I wondered how the dolphins were treated at these kind of venues. This question prompted me to visit the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key in Florida to find out more about how dolphins are trained and cared for. This facility is the home of descendants of the dolphins that played the part of Flipper during the 1960s TV series.
The mission of the Dolphin Research Center is to further our understanding of this intelligent species and offers opportunities for people to interact with them. The dolphins are housed in several enclosures that mimic the pod structure they would divide themselves into when in the wild. There are nursery pods – for recently born calves and mothers; community pods – a dolphin elementary school watched over by an adult female; and bachelor pods – where the mature males can hang out together.
The dolphins here are either rescued or descendants of the Flipper family. The rescued dolphins were victims of shark attacks or the gulf oil spill and, for health reasons, cannot be returned to the wild. The descendants of the Flipper family are human-acclimatized, meaning they are so used to human interaction that they can no longer be returned to the wild.
Trainers and researchers work with the dolphins on site each day to ensure they get proper food, as well as mental and physical stimulation. Although the dolphins will perform some show elements, they do so at their own will. If the dolphin doesn’t feel like doing something or finds something more interesting to do, it will head off and then return when it feels like it. This is treated as normal behaviour and is not frowned upon by the staff. The dolphins do, however, love the adulation of the crowd. This may be why the dolphins at water parks perform their shows, for the applause, just like human performers.
While we may feel that we are training the dolphins, they are also training us. One of their favourite things to do is to people-watch; they float slightly off to the side with one eye out of the water and look at the people on land. They have trained humans to come closer, so they can get a better look, just by making a few dolphin sounds and clicks.
I feel that both humans and dolphins are better off for our encounters with each other. Whether these encounters are at a water park show or at a facility like the Dolphin Research Center, understanding dolphins will help to preserve them and the environment in which they live.