They called him Flipper. In the history of network programming, no weekly half-hour television show has done more, with the possible exception of "Lassie," to bolster the reputation of an animal in the eyes of human viewers. The weekly frolicking of Bud, Sandy and their pet dolphin during the 1960's left an endearing legacy the effects of which are still emerging. The trend in "hands-on" dolphin encounters at megabuck resorts in Hawaii and the Bahamas is a testament to the lasting power of an image created almost fifty years ago.
In February of 1984 no such hotel-sponsored experiences were available. My fascination with dolphins, however, led me to the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Waikiki as a participant in Project Earthwatch (www.earthwatch.org). Teaching Dolphins Language was enticingly presented in a catalogue as one of hundreds of ongoing scientific research projects being carried out worldwide. The Earthwatch concept of financially contributing volunteers involved in tax-deductible working vacations was the backbone of many of these expeditions. For me, it was a cheap way to see Hawaii for a month while indulging myself in a Flipper Fantasy.
* * * * *
"If you've come here in search of Flipper you're going to be severely enlightened."
I had. I was. And in my opinion, Lab Director Louis Herman could have waited a few days to burst our collective bubble. He continued...
"The dolphins we are teaching are wild animals captured for scientific purposes, nothing like those you'll find at Sea World, which were raised in captivity."
Flipper was wild, I thought to myself.
"And for those of you who are concerned about restaurants with "dolphin" on their menus.....don't be. That dolphin is a species of fish unrelated to the mammals we'll be studying. In Florida the Bottlenose Dolphin is called a Porpoise. The two names can be used interchangeably."
He went on with his opening remarks warning of the dangers involved with wild animal research of this kind. Being intensely social creatures, Phoenix and Akeakamai, our two "girls" as they were known, required hours and hours of tankside play. That was part of our job. The remainder of the day would be spent tossing various objects into the tanks where the dolphins were kept waiting for visual and auditory cues such as "Take Ball to Basket," while notes were taken, objects retrieved and dolphins praised and hugged for a proper response.
That would be the order of operations for the coming weeks:
command, respond, reward
command, respond, reward
command, respond, reward
The dolphins knew it well and came to expect it of us. How well they knew it would be revealed to me later in a private training session. What happened that day was not recounted until now, perhaps to the detriment of those running the decades-long project.
Like any job, the routine became boring and repetitive. And there were distractions. The views of Diamondhead, daily rainbows over the hills, and the fragrances of flowers, native cooking and suntan lotion filled the air.
Myths were constantly de-bunked. For instance, it was pointed out that the only reports of sailors being led to shore by dolphins came from those who survived the experience. Those who were led in the opposite direction obviously gave no account of their misfortune. Dolphins love to push objects through the water. And being the equivalent of approximately an 800-pound muscle, can do so with considerable force and ease.
On his experience with such an in-tank encounter, one young lab assistant related:
"...it was radical...worse than any body-slam I've ever gotten playing football."
In-tank encounters were thus forbidden. Nor was safety out of the water a given. An irritable dolphin could signal for a "hug" at one moment, tire of the experience without notice and attempt to bat your head away like a tennis ball off a racket a moment later. And it seemed their irritability was the norm rather than the exception. They were wild dolphins.
It took the better part of two weeks for our lilly-white winter complexions to tan evenly. Defending against intense exposure to tropical sun with varying levels of sunblock produced a patchwork quilt effect on tanning shoulders and arms. A spot left untreated was scorched. Pale handprints were not uncommon. Thirty minutes of exposure was dangerous. We were outside eight hours a day. I have never been, nor will I ever again be, as tan as I was by March of 1984.
By the third week on the project some special changes took place. The "girls" began to recognize us. This behavior was unstudied and undocumented. It wasn't charted, recorded, or data-fied. But it made the project worthwhile.
Previously oblivious to us as we wandered around the outdoor lab in the morning, we would be greeted tankside by a bobbing pair of noses, playfully splashing and chirping (you know that Flipper sound…) to get our attention, rising out of the water in the "hug me" position. It was heartwarming, and very much like the tail-wagging dog/master feeling I'd known before.
To Be Continued