I was a dolphin trainer for a day

I have always wondered what dolphin trainers do. So when I got to try the new Trainer For A Day programme offered by Dolphin Island, I couldn’t wait to dive right in.

Throughout the 6-hour programme, we were in and out of the water a few times engaging with the dolphins. But it’s not all fun. We learnt quickly that most of a dolphin trainer’s day is filled with chores involving basic care for the animals.

One of the most important daily tasks is food preparation. After our introduction to dolphin trainer Zari Scott, we were led into the food preparation room, all ready for some fishy business.

The day's menu
The day’s menu

Every dolphin has its own food bucket. Our job was to redistribute them into smaller feeding buckets meant for single meals. Each feeding bucket should contain mainly capelins, some squids and one herring.

But how much food is enough for a meal? For dolphin Tian Tiang, it’s about 1.5kg of fish per meal and she has about 10 meals a day. Easily the biggest seafood fan I know.

When I reached into the big, ice cold bucket to pick out fish, my fingers became painfully cold within two minutes. I could not imagine filling 10 feeding buckets. Zari told us that every day, two trainers would spend one and a half hours just preparing food for all the dolphins.

Fishing for squid
Fishing for squid

Next we learnt four basic hand signals from Zari to try and communicate with dolphins. One of them was to point both index fingers vertically then curl and uncurl them together (so they look a bit like worms). The dolphin will make clicks and squeaky noises with its blow hole in response.

Part of the animal husbandry, or the science of taking care of animals, is hydration. Dolphins don’t drink sea water, they get moisture from their daily intake of fish. To ensure they are amply hydrated, the trainers manually feed them water using a funnel and tube. I learnt an interesting little fact then: dolphins do not have a gag reflex so they can really drink till they are contented.

Drinking session
Drinking session

As the dolphins’ main caregiver, dolphin trainers track everything about the dolphins. Zari showed us the OERCA system that tracks and measures all sorts of information on every dolphin, from how much they eat to what their latest test results and training progress are. Speaking of test results, here is another interesting fact: blood samples are drawn from the underside of a dolphin’s tail.

My day as a dolphin trainer was not limited to the daily chores (of course!). After four hours of learning, it was time to get in the water with them. As I swam alongside them in the lagoon, the dolphins were so friendly that for a while, I felt like I was part of their pod.

The highlight of the programme (for me) finally arrived – the dolphin foot push. One by one, we laid tummy down on a swim board, and two dolphins would propel us forward using their rostrums. I felt like a human jet-ski speeding through the water with two turbo jets at my feet. Though that high-speed experience lasted less than a minute, it’s something I will remember forever.

Different strokes
Different strokes

After the six-hour session, I realised that being a dolphin trainer requires an incredible amount of patience and passion, and I salute the trainers for that. According to Zari, dolphin trainers never force dolphins to do anything. If the dolphins do not respond to an action, the trainers will try other ways to communicate.

Given the educational and fun nature of this programme, I highly recommend it to anyone, especially families because it is the perfect opportunity to learn together and enjoy quality bonding time.

 

Check out these posts for details on dolphin interaction programmes at Dolphin Island:

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