It’s Feeding Time!

I’ve seen this done on documentaries before, several times in fact. But never live. Seeing it happening right in front of me is eye-opening, and somewhat surreal.

I’m talking about Dolphin feeding time.

But before I dive headlong into it, there are more tasks to complete. Prep work for the feed doesn’t just stop at picking out the right fish for feed. The specialists had to insert a special multivitamin for marine mammals into the gills of each fish. Each dolphin gets up to an optimum of five capsules a day. Watching this, I couldn’t help but receive fond flashbacks of how my parents did almost the exact same act- shoving cod liver oil capsules into my favourite candies. But I digress.

The assigned planner would then brief all the specialists on the schedule and designations for the day.  Each specialist is paired with either two or three dolphins. It dawned on me midway through the feeding rounds at the enclosure that each specialist is only assigned to such a small number of dolphins to ensure no dolphin would be missed or receive double feeding. John, the specialist whom I was shadowing today, confirmed this, but added, ‘Each specialist needs to build trust between the dolphins and us. So it’s important that we interact consistently enough with the same dolphins for them to start recognizing and being comfortable around us’.

John has been working with dolphins for seven years now. Prior to his work with dolphins, the veteran from Down Under has had dealings with a wide variety of other marine creatures including sea lions.

When we approached the enclosure, Rong Rong – the first of three John was scheduled to feed eagerly swam up. ‘He’s one of the younger boys here, very cheeky but a joy to be with’, he shared whilst scrubbing Rong Rong gently on its melon (that’s what they call a dolphin’s forehead). Their friendship was new- barely a few months, but I could hardly tell. They look much at ease with each other.

As John began feeding Rong Rong, I noticed he always places the fish head-first into his mouth, something I didn’t catch from all those documentaries I’ve watched. This, John explained, is so that the spines on the fish’s fins are facing the right way up and would not get stuck when the dolphin swallows. Interesting fact, especially when I also learnt that despite having up to 104 teeth (more than thrice the number of human teeth), dolphins don’t chew their food. Their teeth are used only for gripping food or when necessary, self-defense.

Aside from feeding, specialists will also conduct regular checks in between to ensure the dolphins are in good shape. One of the checks they do is a screening of the dolphin’s mouth for the presence of blisters on the tongue, which could be caused by other wild fish they might have eaten. It may look like an easy task, but such checks require a lot of trust between the dolphin and its specialist before it is willing to open up – almost like how we reacted to the first few visits to the dentist as kids, remember those times?

Feeding times are not always a walk in the park, despite what you see in the pictures. Young ones like Rong Rong sometimes make it challenging, On a few occasions, this cheeky one would dart off for a few rounds of hide-and-seek before settling down for his feed And I swear I saw Rong Rong smirk right before he mischievously dive underwater to hide from us.

I asked John if there were incidents where dolphins don’t finish their feed because they were too playful, and the unruffled Australian had a ready answer. “We try to keep the dolphins engaged by having mini activities, which is like play-time for them, or simply just show some love”. As if on cue, Rong Rong peeks out of the water, just in time for John to bend down to give it an assuring rub on its rostrum (the dolphin’s beak).

When the bucket’s done, the raising of both hands was a common understanding between the two that that was all for the session. This is when the dolphin would swim off to its friends for more play time. And this time, in place of a smirk was a look of satisfaction on Rong Rong’s face..

Well, my both hands are up now too so that’s all for this post folks. Will be bringing you up close and personal with someone special next, watch out for it.

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