Just outside of Puerto Vallarta, set along the Bay, is a large aquatic facility, housing dolphins and several sea lions, along with a few other exotic animals. There are many opportunities to interact with the sea life, but we chose to do the “Trainer for a Day” program, which allows you to spend about 4 to 5 hours with the dolphins and sea lions, working with the training staff to get a better idea of how they are managed.
Our guide for the day was Marisel. She has her training in oceanography, with an emphasis in whales. However, she works with dolphins and is herself in training to become a dolphin trainer! They have 20 dolphins, ranging from a couple of months up to 28 years of age (they can live to be 50 years old). The dolphins live in large groups of up to 700 members in the wild. There is usually an alpha male, who will recruit 2 or 3 other alpha males to control and protect the group. However, at this Dolphinarium, there is only a single alpha male. Through artificial insemination programs, they are able to selectively breed females only, depending on the needs of the community. The females are more easily trained, tend not to be as aggressive, and are more cooperative in the training and performance programs. Of specific note: The males are more easily trained because they are show-offs and interested in the attention, but they tend to lose interest and be more aggressive. Further, the females tend to be more attentive, although they are very easily distracted by pregnant females (of any species).
We were ‘responsible’ for Gandolph and Nemo for our day. Gandolph was 8 and Nemo 7 years old, respectively – both male. They are about 12-15 feet long. They are fed a very controlled diet of 4 types of fish. The fish species are chosen based on their content of fat, fiber, water and protein. They receive about 25 - 45 pounds of fish over the course of the day, depending on gender, age and size. As you can imagine, in captivity, there is a different level of activity and energy requirement than in the wild. There is no fresh water in the ocean, and so when they eat the fish, intercellular free water as well as stored free water in the fish provide the dolphin’s fresh water needs. Dolphins do not really have much in the way of body fat, as they have predominantly muscle. They are able to swim up to about 25 miles per hour, and jump several feet into the air (several body lengths). They are very protective animals although they can be quite rowdy with one another, leaving bite marks while playing or establishing hierarchy. The males are slightly larger and so eat about 5 pounds more per day of food than the females.
The training involves responding to commands, exercise, rewards, grooming, health-care, and love or socialization. The first thing is establishing a rapport. You are not a dolphin. You are in charge, but you are a friend and care-giver. You provide treats and rewards – but the rewards can be food, exercise, love and grooming. Or, you may have to give them a time-out! If the behavior is not what you want, then the dolphin is ignored for one to several minutes. They very quickly learn to provide the appropriate behavior so as to please you and keep the relationship healthy! They do not like to be ignored or left out. Body position and control are important. They are able to sense your heartbeats and other functions. If you display fear, they will move away from you. They respond well to positive energy. Enthusiasm and happiness seem to be emotions they like and respond favorably to. A fully outstretched arm gets their attention. You can then follow the attention command with other commands or series of commands through hand signals or through whistles. Obviously, trainers use a very high frequency whistle, since dolphins have a hearing range that is far superior to humans.
Hearing is one of their best senses. They can hear things underwater for several miles and are able to communicate with one other over great distances. The frontal region has a sonar or echo-location organ. This can be turned on or off – and the directionality of the signal (sound wave), when it bounces off the intended target and returns, can give size, shape, distance, speed, etc, to allow the dolphin to assess danger, food source, or part of another dolphin group. This is a very unique feature of dolphins as a group. We were working with blue-nosed dolphins, which are the second largest of the species. Orcas are the largest of the dolphin family. They use the blow-hole to vocalize and make noises. They are able to make a wide assortment of sounds, all controlled by air movement through the blow hole (connected to the lungs; they do not have vocal cords).
Their vision is not as a good, since water is usually murky, dark and difficult to see through. There is a mucus-like material that covers their eyes, also giving some ultraviolet protection. This is a major concern for dolphins in captivity, as they get a significantly great degree of UV exposure looking out of the water at their trainers versus their wild brethren.
We examined the food storage lockers, washed out the food buckets, helped sort fish (very smelly!), and then reviewed the computer program used to help evaluate the animals. This was a very involved program, tracking everything about the dolphins: time in activities, time in reward, amount of food consumed, hostile behavior, reward behaviors, grooming time, water temperature, oxygenation, foam filtering of their pools, current weather (a heavy thunder storm the night before had contributed significantly to the foam of the water, which was being removed, and ozone and chlorine added to greater a better pH balance of around 7.4), water salinity, number of guests in the water, etc. It was an amazing program that allowed for any parameter to be evaluated and documented – so at any given moment all features of the animals’ health could be tracked, observed, monitored and corrected.
The females become sexually mature at about 7-8 years of age, although they would be considered “teens” at this point. The gestation is about 12-13 months. They ovulate once every 27 days. This is the usual time of sexual activity, a much higher frequency than other animals that go into heat only once or twice per year, such as the sea lions. It takes about 20-120 minutes to birth a dolphin calf and it is too dangerous for the trainers or vets to help. They are born tail first. The reason is to be able to get the dorsal fin and tail out while still attached via umbilical cord to the mother. As soon as the baby is born, the mother or other females, push the baby to the surface in order to allow it to take a first breath. If the calf does not breath promptly, it will drown. Dolphins can swim for 12-15 minutes without taking a breath as adults, but they really do need to get that first breath. The umbilical cord snaps as they swim out, so oxygenation is lost at that point. You can imagine that a breach delivery (head first), could result in snapping of the cord early, and drowning of the baby. The calf is sheltered by the mother and other females for the next several months – although a baby will stay with the mother for about 3 years. The baby will nurse for about 12 months, with fish slowly introduced in the later months. The mother’s milk is high in free water, fat and protein, so full nutrition is supplied during this critical period.
Part of the training and care-taking, is maintaining physical health. Each trainer is responsible for 2 dolphins – rotated between trainers every 3 months. There is a back-up trainer just in case one is missing or out. However, the bond between the dolphin and the training must be established to allow for a healthy animal. The dolphin is inspected each morning for physical health (no severe bites), the right temperature and their mood is evaluated along with their overall demeanor. If they are socialized, if they are interested in playing or interacting with other animals. They are weighed each week, with the diet then modified based on weight and findings. Blood, blow-hole secretions, urine, rectal and gastric contents are tested approximately once per month, unless there are other adverse or extenuating circumstances. To do this, the belly of the dolphin is massaged so that urine is expressed out of their urogenital slit. Fecal material (quite liquid) is removed via a tube. A sharp rap to the blow-hole results in expulsion of material onto a slide that can then be examined for lung contents and fluid evaluation. Blood is drawn from the tail where a vein is superficial. The dolphins are quite docile during these evaluations, all based on trust and reward. Interestingly, they are also given water to drink (about 2 liters per week) in addition to the water content naturally found in the herrings from Canada. The food is frozen to prevent bacterial or viral replication, but there is dehydration with freezing.
Rodrigo was the trainer we worked with while visiting with the South American Sea lion, Shala. She was a rescue animal, several years old. Sea lions differ from seals by having external ears, use of their flippers, and the ability to walk on land rather than just dragging themselves (as seals do). She had been trained to do several things, especially related to vocalizations, facial expressions and air tricks. The animals have an amazing flexibility, being able to touch the pelvis or the tail with forward or backward motion of the head. This type of flexibility makes them very agile swimmers, easily able to out maneuver predators. They are covered by a layer of fur/hair, that was molting at that time. The molting occurs over several weeks, and is not the whole pelt at once, just part of it at any given time, so they don’t have no coat all at once. She was exceedingly playful and very attentive, very expressive, and really a barrel of laughs to play with and interact with. She was genuinely very friendly and fun to be around.
The whole day was not all work. We were in the water, swimming with them, playing with them, petting them and grooming them. They like to be “brushed”, part of a grooming bond between trainer and dolphin. They are very playful and seemed to enjoy swimming with you, discovering what you were about, and generally being a friend. It was an amazing experience to swim with such large and docile animals, knowing how strong and forceful they can be. It was a great experience to be able to learn so much about their behavior, their lifestyles, habitat, food, etc – all the while in a great environment. We even got to spend time with a South American sea lion who was also really fun to play with and full of personality. We were lucky enough to be the only two involved with the “Trainer for a Day” program (it is the off season in Mexico right now – so they were not booked). This gave us a great opportunity to really get individualized instruction and attention.