Sunday, July 28, 2013

What Waterwork Is Like For Me

After eight years of working with dolphins, I can now officially and publicly announce that I am mediocre at best as a trainer who does waterwork in shows.

I am the clumsiest marine mammal trainer on Planet Earth (and possibly other planets, as well).  This is especially evident around dolphins, which poses a unique conundrum.  

What does everything think of when they hear the term "dolphin trainer"?  Do they imagine a thin, graceful female flying across the surface of the water via a foot push?  Launching from the water into a perfect dive, dolphin bowing behind them as if in some aquatic dream, only to resurface with perfect, Mermaid Hair and a Beautiful Smile?

That takes a lot of talent and coordination!

If you have that vision of dolphin trainers, stay away from my shows.   One look at my rat-nest hair and snotty face and you'll be forever disillusioned (and have a much greater respect for the trainers who DO look perfect!).

Now, let me toot my horn a little here.  Thanks to some great mentors, I've learned a lot about training the less intense forms of waterwork.  We're talking foot pushes, bullets (underwater foot pushes), dorsal tows, inverted tows, pec and rostrum tows, human hurdles, and the standard mimic sequence behaviors like spins, pec shakes, tail walk around trainer, fluke wave mimics, etc.  These can be difficult to train depending on the situation, but they are not nearly as flashy as the Waterwork That Would Definitely End My Life, such as roman rides, rockets/hydros, surfs, standing mans, porpoises, etc. etc. 

This is my kind of pace of waterwork.  Holding my breath a long time, swimming with the dolphins, and making sure gravity is always on my side.

It's not that I don't appreciate a good rocket ride.  I mean, wow.  The people that do them train a long time to do those behaviors safely, not to mention the amount of time and energy spent in training the animal (and hey, let's not forget the effort the animal puts in).  But let's all be honest; I can barely manage walking up, down (or stand still) on a set of stairs.  I trip over objects that only exist in alternative dimensions.  There is no reason for someone as accident prone as me to get shot out of the water by a 450 pound, muscle-laden animal.   I leave that to the real high energy waterwork experts.

But whether you're talking roman rides or dorsal tows, the way dolphins respond to waterwork, especially behaviors where they are pushing you through the water, strongly indicates they get psyched.  Most dolphins I've worked with on waterwork (training or maintaining) get really pumped to do the behaviors.   Here is an actual conversation I had* with a dolphin after a waterwork session.

Me: Wow, it's so much fun to swim along side of you underwater!

Dolphin: Yeah, it's been fun.  But I've been meaning to talk to you about that.  I like our laid-back moments and everything, but I feel we need to spice it up.  I can swim 18 miles per hour.

Me: My feelings are hurt.  It's normal for humans to only swim two miles per hour.  Except Michael Phelps who can swim like, seven.  I'll never be able to keep up with you.

Dolphin: Michael Phelps has alien arms, don't let it get you down.  I'm sure there are a lot of other things you're good at.

Me:  Thanks.  Hey, what if you helped me swim at your speed?  Push on my foot or something?

Dolphin: Okay, let's try it.

Waterwork commences.


Waterwork is equally reinforcing to the trainers.  It is a really intimate feeling to have a low-key or supercharged session or show with a dolphin with whom you have a strong relationship.   Just yesterday one  of the dolphins I interact with had an OMFG YESSSSSSSSSSSSSS moment after a great foot push approximation.  She came back to me with so much energy and focus, it was an amazing feeling.

What's not so amazing is how I look after all of this occurs.

Most dolphin trainers look like this after their waterwork:

No joke.

I look more like this:

….seven days….

First, my hair.  My hair is just your standard, run-of-the-mill white girl hair.  It's blond and it's straight, and it's kind of thick thanks to my Sicilian ancestry.  Nonetheless, when it hits water, it turns into matter not yet defined by science.  No matter how many times I try to pull my hair back nicely, once it hits water of any salinity level, it instantly turns into A Frigging Mess.  And then, after the session is over, my hair dries into what can best be described as Hardened Taffy Pulled Into Whimsical Wisps About My Face.

Please do not be distracted by the strange things happening in this photo.  The pufferfish is not important.  My puffer face impression is not important.  It's the WISPS I WANT YOU TO SEE

Some girls dive in the water and come up with perfectly slicked-back hair.  I dive in the water, and 39% of my hair volume ends up in my facial orifices.  A small amount remains trapped in my ponytail holder, and the rest spills out around me on the surface of the water like an oil spill.  I try to gracefully push the hair out of my face, throat, nose, ears, eyes, and slick it back onto the top of my skull.  Sometimes I dunk my head by tipping my body backwards, using gravity to reset my wayward coif.  But this is just an illusion.  Once my hair has 8 seconds or more to dry, the Taffy Wisps form, like some kind of geological marvel.

My hair doesn't slick back.  It forms a beard.  

True story, two days ago when I was running out onto the docks for the start of our show, I was temporarily blinded by several of these Wisps cracking at their foundation and falling into my eyes.  There was no showmanship, only pure panic as I tore at my face with both of my hands as though I was on some kind of Bad Acid Trip**.  I'm sure I really inspired the audience that day.  And I'm pretty sure I heard the dolphins laughing.

Now let's talk about ingesting saltwater. 

I work in a giant netty pot.  A saline solution created by Mother Nature that is piped in from a body of water mere feet from my place of employment.   Because I can't think of a better way to hang out with dolphins than to be in their element where they are in charge, I love to swim with them if they're in the mood for it.  I dive down and swim around, acting like a little kid.  I work on my water work behaviors.    The dolphins I work with now (and have in the past) seem to love playing with foot/basket/volley/soccer balls, so I hurl those out and around the habitats; sometimes we get more trainers and animals involved and play monkey in the middle.  Either way, I'm in the water a lot.    And I end up drinking a lot of it, like a little kid in a swimming pool.

At some point, I thought in my adulthood I'd learn the appropriate way to swim in a body of water without attempting to ingest half of its volume.  The problem is, I get so excited when I'm in the water that I can't stop laughing, smiling, or talking to the animal.  I'm sure with careful training I could learn to express this excitement in a way that has higher showmanship (like so many of my friends do…they are amazing), but I think I'll always just be a 10 year old kid trapped in an adult's body.

So I drink a lot of saltwater unintentionally.  This results in a queasy, overly-salty sensation in my digestive system that has only one cure in Western medicine: Ice cream.  No, Snickers.  Well, mega-stuff oreos can do the trick too.   Cupcakes.  Rice-Krispy Treats on occasion.

It taketh away the saltiness!

Another thing that occurs is the Great Flushing Of The Sinuses.  This doesn't occur until after I've gotten out of the water and the Universe knows I need to Talk To Guests.  So I swim around, swallowing water and my own hair, laughing with the dolphins,  sharing my life's passion with the rest of the world.  But the show or session must end and so I must get out of the water.  

And right after the Taffy Wisps harden on my skull, my sinuses suddenly pull the plug and everything inside of them attempts to blast out.

I can sniff and sniff but the only thing that can help me is, well, a tissue of some kind.  Which, this may surprise you, is not standard to have near a dolphin habitat.  So I have to kind of tilt my head back in a way that doesn't make me look like Linda Blair but also doesn't allow me to Snot Rocket any guests when I answer their questions.  

I swear, it's for your own protection from my Sinus Evacuation.

I can't IMAGINE what it'd be like to have me do a rocket ride with the problems I've just described to you.   The only thing I could hope for is when the dolphin shot me out of the water, that my Horrible Hair would be mostly plastered to my face in a way that would shield the general public from the Snot Rocket that would undeniably occur as a matter of simple physics.   But of course, it would suffocate me and I'd have to be rescued by some good looking paramedics who'd use the Jaws of Life of my hair/mucus mask that of course, would've hardened by the time they got me out of the water.  Trust me, I've thought this through.

Compare dolphin trainers' hair.  WHY DOES MINE DO THAT!!!!

So I stick with my fun swimming time in which I remain more or less in one dimensional plane (unless I'm underwater) and leave the airborne stuff to the experts.  I'm just having a good time with the animals.  And ultimately, I hope that's the message that the guests take home from the show or interaction.  Not that they had a trainer who looks like she got hit by a bus every time she takes a breath, but that we all (humans and dolphins) have a great time interacting in an environment that really lets us interface with each other.  Yes, the dolphins are a zillion times more adept, but us humans can hang to some degree.   We're all having fun, and that's ultimately what really matters, right?

* In my head

** I've never been on any Acid Trips.  I shudder to think what I'd be like if I ever did any illegal substances.


  1. My darling Cat, let me teach you the secret of great hair from a ex-synchronized swimmer. Knox gelatin. I kid you not, mix with warm water slick hair back coat with Knox. It forms a "helmet" without looking icky and it will wash out with shampoo easily. Trust me a child of the 80's with a Patty Smythe (the warrior)hair cut, competing in sport where "wisps" were points OFF! Love you.. Deedles!

  2. May I inquire as to where you work?:)