My Friend the Dolphin

A SeaWorld stint goes swimmingly

I can well understand why SeaWorld San Diego fields 150 applications a year for a handful of animal-training jobs. What better way to spend your days than with co-workers who do front flips on cue, would rather hug you than bite you, and seem always to be smiling? So when SeaWorld recently introduced its Trainer-for-a-Day program, I couldn't resist.

Trainer for a Day--which also is offered at SeaWorld Orlando--provides anyone over 13 a hands-on, backstage perspective on everything from maintaining a dolphin's health to staging the Shamu killer whale show. My suspicions that SeaWorld might sugar-coat the experience were quickly erased when I arrived at the park at 8:30 a.m. on a late January day. My co-trainee, retired accountant Sharna Baeder of Scottsdale, Ariz., and I were greeted by Suzanne Morgan, a SeaWorld trainer for 18 years. She escorted us to a locker room and instructed us to change into the wet suits that were waiting. ("I swore I'd never wear a girdle again," joked Baeder, 63, as we struggled to cram ourselves into the tight suits.)

Our first stop was the "fish house." There we prepared the day's meals for the dolphins by stuffing giant multivitamins into trout, herring, and mackerel and parceling them out by weight into each animal's assigned buckets. Then we helped weigh a group of female dolphins by signaling with a sweep across the chest, which told them to swim to the poolside scale and jump aboard. Of course, we rewarded each dolphin with a mouthful of fish.

Chores completed, it was time to play. As Morgan explained, the acrobatics SeaWorld mammals are famous for are variations of behaviors that come naturally to them in the wild. Training them to perform on cue is much like teaching a dog: You use primary reinforcers (food) and secondary reinforcers (a pat on the head and an enthusiastic "Way to go!"). With Phil, Sparky, and Bodine, three male bottlenose dolphins, we tossed around a few basketballs and learned hand signals that made them vocalize and jump out of the water to give us hugs. After that, we hung out with Kasatka the killer whale and her daughter, Takara. It was there we learned that if you blow a whale a kiss, prepare to get drenched. That signal tells the animal to do a belly flop by the edge of the pool, splashing gallons of water on unsuspecting guests.

JOY RIDE. The highlight of the day was an in-the-water training session with Purina the dolphin. Slipping into her 56F pool wasn't easy: Imagine jumping into a barrelful of ice, and you'll understand the sensation. But I quickly forgot about the cold when Purina swam up to greet me. Serene and patient, she let me stroke her warm, perfectly smooth skin. I twirled once, and she answered by spinning in circles until I blew the whistle around my neck--her signal that she had performed the task correctly.

Then came the ultimate joy ride. I grasped Purina's dorsal fin with both hands and held on tightly as she hurled her muscular body across the pool. Skiing or riding a galloping horse are nothing compared with the sensation of being towed through the water by a 550-pound dolphin.

The seven-hour day was jam-packed with other tasks, ranging from the down and dirty to the glitzy. We toured the veterinary center and made a cameo appearance waving to the audience in the "Dolphin Discovery" show. Trainer Morgan educated us on everything from how to give a dolphin a sonogram to how to collect a urine sample from a whale (don't ask). My one disappointment was that we didn't spend time with the otters, seals, and walruses, an experience the Orlando program offers.

As the sun set, and we headed for the hot showers, three dolphins swam to the edge of the pool and poked their heads out of the water. They all had big smiles on their faces. So did we.

By Arlene Weintraub

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