Debby Caruso was 12 when she first sat in the bleachers at Sea World and watched the trainers surf on the backs of killer whales.
That, the Syracuse, N.Y., resident thought, has got to be the coolest job in the world.
She hadn't reckoned on the fish.
About 15 years later, kneeling on a concrete floor up to her elbows in an icy bucket filled with herring, Ms. Caruso can't suppress a giggle. She'd driven 826 miles to her brother's in South Carolina, hopped a flight to Florida, and plunked down $349 for one day in a wetsuit.
"I don't do things like this for myself," the payroll manager says, adding that the price tag certainly gave her pause, "but I never thought I'd have an opportunity like this."
Sea World is hoping to cash in on the dreams of thousands of people like Caruso who grew up on "Flipper." For those captivated by marine life, it's a chance to find out for themselves if a dolphin's skin really feels like rubber.
Sea World's new Trainer for a Day program, which began in February, lets a guest spend eight hours with the marine mammals and the people who work with them.
It is the theme park's latest foray into bringing tourists nose-to-beak with the graceful creatures. Trainer for a Day builds on its two-year-old Dolphin Interaction Program (DIP), where for $159, participants can shake flippers with a dolphin. Sea World is expecting to open Discovery Cove, a new park that will also emphasize animal-human interaction, next year.
The day-long program promises participants a taste of what a trainer's day is really like - hence the chores, and the raw fish. So far, Caruso has done a load of laundry and tidied up the trainers' locker room. After preparing breakfast for a hungry whale named Suki (30 pounds of herring, smelt, and sardines), she gets to do the dishes and scrub the floor. And it's only 8 a.m. "You know, I was on vacation to get away from this stuff," she laughs.
But after the grunt work is done, it's time for the fun. While Trainer for a Day participants don't get to ride on the backs of the sleek creatures, there are still plenty of hands-on activities.
Over at Dolphin Cove, Caruso rubs down Scarlet, as the dolphin obligingly rolls on her back like an ecstatic cat. (The chance to tickle a dolphin's tummy has prompted 2,171 people to sign up for the DIP program so far this year. Trainer for a Day, which started in February, is more expensive, but is ultimately far more satisfying, since you get a dolphin all to yourself, not to mention some play time with the killer whales.)
As Caruso learns some basic commands, trainer Mike Survocik stands watchfully nearby, directing dolphins and humans, dispensing wisdom, and cracking jokes in a lazy drawl.
The close relationship the trainers have with the animals makes the hands-on programs possible. "The trainer's always right there," making it a safe adventure for both the humans and the dolphins, says Mr. Survocik, who's been with Sea World since 1988. "The dolphin thinks, 'Hey, there's my pal, Mike. If Mike's right there, maybe this Debby's OK.' "
Indeed, when Caruso directs Scarlet to the other side of the tank, the dolphin gives her a quick glance before taking off. "See how she looked at [Debby] like, 'Now who am I taking orders from?' " Survocik says.
Dolphins rely on signals for direction, and the trainers' hands flicker so quickly the movement is almost invisible when a dolphin is ordered to spit ice all over a reporter. (The results, however, are pretty clear.)
Much of the training looks like play. The trainers use jump ropes, toys, whistles, and of course, fish, to keep things as entertaining as possible for their charges. After all, if a 550-pound animal decides it doesn't want to do something, there's not a whole lot a mere human can do to change its mind. "A degree in child psychology comes in handy with this job," Survocik says.
In fact, the curtain abruptly comes down on the morning show when a female pseudorca (false killer whale) makes it clear she doesn't want to perform.
For the most part, though, the dolphins are remarkably patient with the dozen or so humans in the DIP program. Goofy obligingly lets everybody hug her, politely shakes flippers all round, and splashes everyone with her tail when Survocik has his unsuspecting victims march in place. (Dolphin-trainer humor is, for the most part, all wet.)
As for what a whale's skin really feels like (a wet boot? a black olive?), let's ask the new expert. "It felt shiny; it was wonderful," says Caruso, beaming.
After helping behind the scenes during the show, it's Caruso's turn to be fed. She lunches with the trainers, then changes into a heavier-duty wetsuit and is turned over to the tender mercies of the 5,000-pound killer whales.
She is fairly diffident around the animals in the beginning. But by her afternoon session in Shamu Stadium, she's ordering killer whales around with a commanding wave of her arm and plunging into the 52-degree water.
But she didn't lose her awe.
"Just the thought, 'I'm touching a killer whale,' " Caruso says, shivering at the thought that the fiercest predator in the ocean let her pet it. "It's a wonderful feeling - I don't think I'll have anything [else] like it in my life."