Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Swimming" With Dolphins: A Middle Flipper Perspective

Let's see a raise of hands out there for how many of you have wondered what it's like to actually swim with dolphins?  How about those of you out there who have/do swim with dolphins regularly; do you get this questions a lot?

Fact: We are not swimming.  We are floating.

I think everyone who's seen a dolphin has wondered at some point what the experience of hanging out with them in their element is like.  Let's save the "what is it exactly about dolphins that make humans heart them so much*" for another blog post, but there is this unexplained and occasionally weird obsession many people in many cultures have with cetaceans and the desire to be near them.

Some of us watch dolphin shows and presentations, and see trainers and dolphins doing waterwork, flying through the air or tearing through the water.  It's an impressive sight (....unless you're watching me do it).  It captures our imagination, especially if we haven’t had the experience of being in the water like that with a dolphin.  Why? Because I mean LOOK at this:


And this:

Zoom zoom zoom

Talk about swimming with dolphins! That’s 18mph of pure fun** for both taxa involved.

So we’ve got trainers being hurled out and about by dolphins in a coordinated display of relationship, physical fitness, and good training (on both parties’ ends).   This is probably the epitome of the experience, right?

Well, let’s really look at this idea of what I mean by “swimming with dolphins.”

Waterwork is 90% the dolphin’s energy.  Yes, it takes the trainer a lot of physical conditioning depending on the actual behavior in order to do the behavior well and safely.  I’m not in any way saying that the trainer does nothing.  But when it comes to actually swimming with the animals, waterwork is not an accurate illustrative example of what it’s like to be in the water with these powerful animals.  We as trainers swim out to the area we need to be in for the waterwork behavior, and then the dolphin does all the muscle work (i.e. swimming and jumping).


What I mean by swimming with dolphins is, you’re in the water, swimming around like the little weird water apes we are, and the dolphins are right next to you.  There is very little towing or pushing involved, just you hanging out beside a dolphin under your own steam.  What is THAT like?

First of all, a quick shout out to National Geographic, Animal Planet, and Dolphin Documentary Filmmakers Everywhere:  thanks for NOTHING.  "Thanks"  for using high-speed film and SLOWING IT DOWN.  Like, I grew up thinking that dolphin jumps had a distinctly slow arch that took minutes to complete.  You know the footage I’m talking about, right?  You see a dolphin or two sailing into the air, water beading off of their gorgeous sleek bodies, arching across the horizon.  This processes takes a long enough time to get up to go to the kitchen, make Baked Alaska, and return just in time to see the dolphins perfectly re-enter the glittering Caribbean Sea water that all bottlenose dolphins seem to live in in Documentary World.

Slow motion tells us lies, like that water makes a great hat.

Until I saw a dolphin in real life, I thought they were slowly powerful, like an Olympic athlete doing his thing on some rings, or a yogi moving through a vinyasa.  Intense muscular action contained in a fluid, rhythmic and slow method.  Yeah, I heard/read that orcas could swim over 30mph.  But that meant absolutely nothing to me as a kid; I had no basis of comparison.   Understanding speed for me as a kid was broken down into categories:

1. The speed at which I ran*** the mile, which took me 9 days to complete on average
     making my mean pace something like 0.000001 mph

2. How fast the car moved, which was carefully measured by Tree Blurriness Factor (but
     was mostly ignored due to Coloring Books)

3. How fast time went (slowly), especially in school (god awful)


So a mathematic/physics prodigy I was not.  Thirty miles per hour meant nothing other than that it probably looked really slow, because all the orca documentaries I’d seen had extremely slowed-down footage.  

Long story short, I had absolutely zero concept of how fast dolphins moved in real life.

The first time I saw a dolphin, I was 9 years old.  I went to the Shedd Aquarium with my school and saw the adorable Pacific white-sided dolphins.  If you know anything about that species, you are probably thinking to yourself, “Uh, well, Cat found out real quick how fast dolphins are.”

Yeah, Shedd!

Yeah, those guys are quick.  I was amazed at how high they could jump, how smart they seemed to be, how beautiful they were (and still are).  But more impressively, I couldn’t believe how fast it took them to come BACK from some of their impressive aerial behaviors to their trainers.  It was lightning fast.  And after the show, the dolphins zoomed around at a cruising speed of Faster Than National Geographic Documentary miles per hour.

You’d think that with this newfound knowledge of cetacean velocity, I’d therefore have some idea of what it’d be like to swim with them.  I’m happy to report that no, I remained clueless on this front, like so many others.  Why? Because I’d still never been up close and personal with a dolphin.  Also, I think humans have a really bizarre tendency to think they are way better at something than they really are.  

Maybe other animals have this problem, too.  Like please someone tell me if they work with a panda who is just convinced they are great at Impressionism, or a sea lion who believes they’d be good at spelunking (I may or may not know such a sea lion).

When I was a kid, I used to imagine that I’d be the best bass player around, in our own galaxy and perhaps neighboring ones.  I’d listen to music for hours and pretend I was the one shredding the bass line, winning every Battle of the Bands event ever.  I dreamed about it, how I’d just pick up a guitar and just know automatically how to play everything.  This extended to instruments I’d never even held before, like the bass clarinet or the saxophone.  I don’t even know which end of those things to blow into, but in my mind I thought if I ever picked one up, I could totally figure it out.  Of course, in reality I had to practice really hard to play bass at even a womp womp level.   And it was always a great disappointment when I realized my deficiency.

Please enjoy this picture of me

Humans collectively do this with their abilities because we like to imagine and dream, which is awesome.  It’s just a good thing to realize our tendency to exaggerate so we’re not totally blown away when we find out how out of touch with our actual abilities we are.  And most things we can practice and cultivate, and become extremely proficient or even GENUIS at.  But there are some things that no matter how hard we try, we will always be Womp Womp.

I think swimming is one of those things.

One does have to wonder

Seriously, no matter how comfortable you are in the water, or how long you can hold your breath, or how many gold medals you’ve won in swim competitions, you’ll always SUCK compared to a dolphin.  Sorry, it’s true.  But that’s not something you realize until you’re in the water with one and they’re like, “HEY LOOK WHAT I CAN DO!”

I think people imagine themselves getting into the water with a dolphin, swimming alongside of them at an easy pace, checking out the native fish and invertebrate life (“Hey dolphin! look at this cool sea star I found!”) and communing with Mother Nature.  There may be some interspecies communication happening about Mysteries of The Universe like the Purpose of Life, Does God Exist, and Why Can’t The Cubs Win The Pennant?  Bystanders green with envy will watch from the shore as the two of you glide beautiful alongside one another through the perfectly clear and calm water, sparkling in the warm sun.  

Next frame: swimmer by herself with not a damn dolphin in sight.

Of course, we’re leaving out some of the important details of this swim, like: choppy water, low visibility, jellyfish, the fact that you’ll need to come up to take a breath more often and way less gracefully than a dolphin, and oh, that no dolphin gives a #*%@ if you find a sea star.

Now okay, I’ll admit there is a difference between swimming with a dolphin in human care and one who is not.  Also, in the U.S. and Canada it’s illegal to harass wild dolphins which includes pursing them and jumping in with them and swimming.  So I’m talking about that you’re like just la la la hanging out in the ocean and BOOM there are dolphins (doesn’t happen that often, but it does happen).

There is no swimming WITH dolphins.  Here’s a quick synopsis of the experience from a human perspective:

Human: paddle paddle paddle, choke on seawater and sputter around for a while, clean out the fogged up mask, paddle paddle paddle, stop to choke some more


Here is a majestic picture of me swimming with dolphins

Dolphins in human care have learned that we are hopelessly craptastic in the water, and usually act accordingly.  Usually.  The first time I ever got in the water with dolphins was at a natural lagoon facility in Honduras during a marine biology excursion, and oh my god.

I seriously had dreamed about this trip for months, and specifically about the experience of getting in the water with dolphins.  The illusory scenario I wrote a few paragraphs up? That was basically what I thought would happen.  That I’d somehow call to me all the dolphins and they’d swim along side of me at like 3mph, and we’d play with seashells and stuff.  And all the other students would be sooooo jealous.

In reality, I got in the water and was ignored by all the dolphins for about 20 minutes.  I had snorkel gear on, including really good dive fins, so I swam faster than I normally could, and I was still ridiculously slow compared to the ten other dolphins flying around.  They. Were. So. Fast.  Graceful, yes.  But oh my god.  I was so sad that they weren’t interested in me, either.  So I decided to just watch them interact with each other, realizing fully and completely that I really had had no clue what these animals were like until I’d seen them in person like this, in this context.  

Sarah's impression of me the first time I swam with dolphins.  Derpa derp

This still happens with me, even as a relatively experienced trainer.   Just a few days ago, I got in the water to swim with one of our female dolphins, Lily (the one who brings us gifts all the time).  She seems to find trainers swimming with her reinforcing.  But sometimes she gets really hyper and excited, not to the point where she’s like that around humans, but if you’ve got a mask on and can see what she’s doing, you can really appreciate how fast she can really swim.  I was playing with a football with her, and she was going crazy with it.  There is something to be said about watching a dolphin swim at top speed towards a favorite toy, leap out of the water, and then race back to you…all while you’re in there, being a slow as Cat Rust In Math Class human.

Sometimes I think the dolphins feel bad for us.  There have been multiple instances with several different dolphins I’ve known who have been swimming next to me really slowly (because they’ve grown up with humans and know how awful we are in the water, and have learned to swim next to us) and suddenly, they jut out a pectoral flipper and hook my arm and speed up.  It took me a few times to figure out WTF was going on, but when I grabbed on to the offered flipper, they tow me around at a speed kinda sorta approaching what their normal cruising speed is.  And these were dolphins (mostly younger ones) who had not learned any kind of towing/pushing behavior for waterwork. 

It’s like they were like, “okay, I know I’m supposed to swim next to you, but good lord grab on.”

I love this experience, but I’m always a little embarrassed.  Maybe someday, we’ll be able to communicate more complicated ideas to dolphins and I can be like, “Look, I wish I could swim that fast, but I CAN’T AND IT’S NOT MY FAULT WAHHHHHH!”

Human! Why you blow all your air out!

I feel that dolphins must talk to each other after park hours about how awful we are at swimming:

Dolphin 1: Oh my god, did you see my session with Cat today?
Dolphin 2: She tries so hard, doesn’t she?
Dolphin 1: Yeah, she does.  Normally I’m inspired by her tireless effort but today I wanted to rip my nonexistent hair out.  And they way she lifts her entire head out of the water and gulps air like a dying fish
Dolphin 2: Just try to remember the things she does well, like fall down.

The one time I’ve seen dolphins swimming around me in the wild, it really made me appreciate the relationship I have with the dolphins I’ve known in human care.  Really.  I mean, I’ve swam with calves who are like “YAYAYAYAY” or “OMG WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THIS WATER OF MINE” and are swimming in all directions, seemingly at once (it’s scientific fact that baby dolphins have mastered quantum physics principles such as being in two places at one time).  I’ve also seen dolphins take off after something more interesting, leaving me on the swirly, white-water sidelines like the kid who’s always picked last for kickball.


But it was different seeing wild dolphins swim around me.  They act like they have no clue how fragile we humans really are compared to them.  And the area I was in has a horribly long history of feeding wild dolphins, so the animals aren’t just coming over to have a metaphysical encounter.  

I was in the water way in front of and to the side of a pretty big pod of bottlenose dolphins.  And they found me.  Normally they swim by, tens of yards away.  Too for to see underwater, but you can see them at the surface for a hot second.  But this time, they all came at me from behind.  I was just swimming along at the surface, choking every so often because there was a pretty good chop on the water.  And I am really, really comfortable in the water; I’m a strong swimmer.  Still, that’s just for a human.  So when these dolphins came up underneath me at an ungodly speed, I was scared.  One of the dolphins was about eight inches underneath me, looking up at me.  They circled around me, echolocating and making a buzzing sound that doesn’t always precede a friendly handshake.  I was actually scared.  I had no way to get away, I had no way to even ask them to let me leave, like I can with the dolphins with whom I work.  I just basically had to sit there and hope they didn’t try to mess with me.  Luckily, they left as quickly as they’d snuck up on me.

Cool picture, scary when it happened

So swimming with dolphins is more like floating with dolphins.  And unless you have some super secret X-Men talent that allows you to reach speeds even CLOSE to that of a normal dolphin, it will always be this weird, kicky floaty encounter.  But that’s okay, because it’s not our element.  It’s theirs.  We can and should appreciate the inherent power these animals have.  And enjoy every accidental water-inhaling minute we have with the dolphins we know and love in the facilities we work in all over this globe.  Because even though it ain’t glamorous, we can answer the question, “What’s it like to swim with dolphins?”


* Seriously! Dolphins are awesome! Like so many other species of animals.  But there is just something about those guys

** Terror, for poor ol’ me

*** Ha ha ha, just kidding.  Walked.

1 comment:

  1. A lunocet monofin pro allows you to swim up to 20 mph and even breach out of the water, for $500. :(