Sunday, May 14, 2017

The OLD Dolphins

There are definitely many reasons why I consider myself lucky.  One of those reasons is that I've had the pleasure of knowing more than my fair share of Old Lady Dolphins.  Considering today is Mother's Day in the U.S., I think today's topic is pretty fitting.  In fact, I'd like to go even further and talk about a very special lady I got to know at my last job.

Happy mother's day!

There are probably many of you dolphin trainers (extant and extinct) who will know exactly who I'm talking about....and you probably have a lot of stories of your own to share.  So PLEASE do.  

First, let's just talk about Old Lady Dolphins (herein referred to as OLDs*).  I have written about a few of these gals before (Nellie, Pebbles, Panama, Delilah) but I feel like it's worth revisiting the classification of this very special personality type.

Second, some of you work with social animals who are matriarchal in nature (I'm really looking at you, elephant keepers).  What I write today may ring true for some of the golden girls in your life, so correct me if I make this too specific to dolphins, but....

....dolphins are "special".   Like, they are the High Maintenance Animal of the universe.  I haven't talked to any extinct species, but I would be utterly shocked if we found out that deinonychus or wooly mammoths were as ridiculously dramatic as dolphins.  I mean, dolphins as a family are pretty successful evolutionarily speaking.  So the whole diva thing must really be working for them.

THAT'S what she was trying to tell me?!

This is not just a personality trait, people.  While I will admit there are laid back dolphins, most of them are basically insane.  Bottlenose dolphins are top predators.  They are so good at what they do in the wild that they have tons of free time on their hands to terrify sharks who are just trying to do shark things, like breathe, eat, and avoid human beings.   Dolphins also have a lot of sex, like to the point where I feel like it must offend other ocean creatures who struggle every day just to put food in their bellies and/or not die.  

We all know that the ocean is not a quiet place, and not just because Chatty Cathy dolphins live in it.  We know that the other vertebrates and invertebrates who populate the seas make noise a lot.  Why?  Oh, I'll tell you why, and I don't need a PhD in marine blah blah blah to know that 96% of oceanic animal sounds are essentially just a bunch of critters pointing out how annoying dolphins are.

Parrot fish:  Oh great, there go the dolphins again
Sailfish:  If I see one more dolphin penis I'm gonna gag
Menhaden: How DO they find the time?

All day all night

But life is balance, right?  You may have dolphins acting like the confident, world rulers that they are....but they also poop their figurative pants because a bubble appeared 78 feet away from their left eye (little known fact: this is unacceptable to many dolphins). Oh yes, there is another side to this coin.  If there wasn't, how could dolphins survive more than a few months without having major stress-related strokes and/or psychotic breaks?



OLDs are around to calm the waters, literally and figuratively.  They are the emotional bomb squad of the dolphin world.  If things have gotten entirely out of hand (you know, Flippy can't possibly sit next to Dolly, because she once moved her head too suddenly and plus she totally stole Flippy's football four years ago), you can almost always count on an OLD to settle the score.  

Flippy: Oh my god seriously, if I have to station next to Dolly I am seriously going to flip out
Flippy: GOOD! But I'm still going to chase you just because I CAN
OLD:  Listen.  Both of you better grow the eff up, because I will use all 600 pounds of my beautiful self to set you straight

Oh, did I mention that most OLDs are huge?  Like, huge.  Maybe 100 pounds heavier than the other animals.  Nellie had rock hard abs, not even kidding. 

How DOES she find the time?

They command respect, but not usually through aggression (although it may come to that in extreme cases).  OLDs use leadership skills that many animal trainers could stand to follow once they get a senior or supervisor title next to their names (sorry not sorry, it's true).  Most of the time, they are the dolphin everyone wants to be with.  They are the dolphin that swims past and everyone just stares in admiration.  And when someone steps out of line, they do the least amount of nastiness possible, returning quickly to their calm, wonderful selves.

Got the picture?  Good.  Now let's talk about Nani.


Nani was the oldest dolphin at National Aquarium, who unfortunately passed away a couple of months ago. I was privileged to get to know her, and work with her.  Um. Work FOR her.  

Nani was the queen of the clan.  She had a way about her that made all mammals near her - humans and dolphins alike- instantly fall in love.  Maybe it was her gorgeous, dark skin.  Maybe it was her little teddy bear eyes.  Or maybe it was because she was smarter than everyone she knew.

"Did you get my snacks yet?"

While I only worked with her for eight short months, I racked up a good amount of Nani stories in which I was further made aware of my puny standing as a naked ape.  For example, like many OLDs, she had figured out that hanging on to her toys at the end of the day meant she would get an extra snack.  However, she was one of the only OLDs I knew who would approach you, let go of her toy and place it JUST out of reach, and try to house the extra fish you were feeding the other dolphins for stationing.  And you know what?

Not a single dolphin dared taking that toy.  Every other place I have worked, if anyone (OLD or otherwise) let go of a contraband toy, someone else snatched it up.  But not with Nani.  Those rare times another dolphin attempted to steal the leverage, Nani pulled her Boss Lady card and the mistake was not repeated.

Yes, Miss Nani.

She also completely controlled husbandry training of her kids.  Her adult kids.  Now, that might not surprise some of you when you think about how female bottlenose dolphins stay with their moms their entire lives in most cases.  So yeah, when her daughter Spirit was in a blood layout, Nani would sometimes come over and yell at both human and dolphin, causing Spirit to kick out of the layout.  Pretty sure Nani knew this maneuver would result in lots of splashing that filled up our boots with water so we had gross, soggy whitefeet for the entire day.

Actual dolphin trainer foot

But she also did this with her adult son.  As is typical, Nani did not live with her adult son Beau.  And still, when he was in a blood layout, she would interfere in some way from entirely different habitats.  And he, the obedient momma's boy, would immediately stop what he was doing, as if he was just caught doing something wrong.

Beau: NO! No ma! I don't know what you're talking about, I would never do that! No!

"If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times.  You don't let those two-legged freaks touch your precious flukes."

There were many attempts to smooth this issue with training, with some success.  According to trainers who had been there a while, Nani had gotten much better and most times, you could work your husbandry approximations without interference.  Correction: whatever we did made Nani comfortable ALLOWING us to continue.  But every once in a while, she had to remind all of us who was really in charge.

Like all OLDs I knew, she was extremely maternal.  Not just towards dolphins, either.  She stared at human babies like they belonged to her. Maybe that creeps some of you put, but I thought it was pretty adorable.

Nani (left) and her daughter Spirit staring at me and my daughter!

Nani filled a lot of hearts over a long period of time. She was an extremely bright, confident animal who knew how to keep a family together. Her loss was and still is profoundly felt.  She is definitely one of the most memorable OLDs I have ever met. And if you never had the honor of knowing her, I hope you feel like you knew her after reading this. 

Thank you, sweet Nani.



  • OMG...I so did NOT even intend for that acronym to work out so perfectly.  I'd love to have you all believe I'm some sort of English wordsmith genius but too many of you know me for who I really am: a former dolphin trainer who really wishes she was R2D2. 

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