How to train a dolphin
What a way to start the work day: weighing herring tidbits and getting wet dolphin kisses.Skip to next paragraph
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But this is just part of the daily drill at the New England Aquarium for two dolphin and seal trainers, Sue Sinclair and Janet Hester.
The two animal lovers started out by volunteering at the aquarium in their free time. Gradually they worked up to full-time trainers on The Discovery, the floating theater alongside the aquarium where these sea mammals perform daily.
The first big discovery for Sue, who is now head trainer, and for Janet was that these animals have distinct identities. ''Each one is different,'' Sue says, ''and you have to deal with them as the individuals they are. That keeps you very interested in what you are doing.''
To the audience, dolphins appear to be a pool full of identical twins. ''They just look like big gray globs unless you have had experience with them,'' she explains. ''But if you were here for only an afternoon, probably by the end of the day you would notice their different characteristics. They really do look different.''
During the 40-minute show, while patting one of the three dolphin stars on the snout, she tells the audience what a dolphin feels like. All slimy or scaly? Not a bit of it, she says. ''Their skin is very smooth and feels like a wet inner tube or a hard-boiled egg.''
A seal act gets the show going and is followed by a short educational film on sea mammals in the wild.
The dolphin part of the program begins when three Atlantic bottlenosed dolphins swim through the underwater door leading from their retaining pool backstage into the performing pool. Cathy, a 550-pound teen-ager (17 years old) , Dixie, a temperamental, 450-pound nine-year-old, and Carol, an eight-year-old 400-pounder, nuzzle their faces over the edge of the stage at Sue's feet, awaiting their cue.
When she says, ''Shall we start by saying hello to everybody?'' the trio let loose with high-pitched, ear-splitting yakety-yak-yak squeaks that evoke delighted squeals from the audience of schoolchildren.
Dolphins are noisemakers. But their raucous sounds - and they have a big vocabulary of them - emanate not from their mouths but from the blowhole in the top of their heads.
On this particular morning Dixie, the show's unpredictable prima donna, seems to have gotten up on the wrong side of the pool. Instead of obediently beaching herself on stage for a few moments so that everybody can see how beautiful a bottlenosed dolphin is, she is doing what she often does in the morning - skulking on the bottom of the pool, testing her trainer to see how much she can get away with.
Normally a quick learner and hard worker, she performs some of the most spectacular tricks - ''behaviors,'' as the trainers call them - such as hurtling up out of the water at high speed to hit a red ball hanging 20 feet above the pool. Even with four or five performances a day, she misses only about once a month. But when Dixie doesn't want to perform, she sometimes tries to prevent her colleagues from doing their thing.
''Dixie!'' Sue reproaches, ''you are a mammal. You have to come up for air at some point. Do you think you're ready to do this yet?'' No, Dixie is not. She cruises by the stage, glowering at Sue. Suddenly she changes her mind, shifts gears, and zooms onto the stage on her stomach with her tail riding high as if serving herself on a platter.
This is an impressive accomplishment for both trainer and trainee, because it is not normal for a dolphin to come up out of the water unless it is not feeling well and drifts up onto a beach. Most of the time, 90 percent of a dolphin is under water. So this behavior gives the audience a rare, fleeting look at the symmetry of the whole animal.