Dolphin Experience Is Magical, Motivational

By FRAN PELHAM | Jul 17, 2019
Courtesy of: Fran Pelham The author was forever touched by her dolphin encounter in Mexico.

A little more than a 20-minute ride from the cruise ship docked in the port of Cozumel, Mexico, fellow travelers and I stepped from a minivan and practically into the turquoise waters of Dolphin Discovery in Chankankanaab National Park.

The Mexican sun baked our backs as we scrambled into snorkels and masks, slipped into new, royal blue life vests, squeezed into fins and trotted from the white-sugar sand to the edge where beach meets water in a well-enclosed lagoon and onto a wooden platform within another enclosure.

Seagulls perched on nearby dock pilings and waited patiently to snatch the fishy treats tossed by a trainer to dolphins swimming below. The crafty birds caught their pirated booty in mid-air and flew off, leaving the dolphins hungry – yet the permanent smiles remained on their dolphin faces.

Our dolphin guide this day was Rayman, who smiled and introduced himself. He instructed us to leave all gear, except the life vest, on the dock above. Rayman then led our small group onto a partly submerged, underwater platform. We lined up shoulder-to-shoulder while he explained the intricate hand signals that he would use to enable humans and dolphins to interact in a mutually fun and respectful manner.

From the corner of my eye I caught sight of a small pod of dolphins tossing a bundle of seaweed among themselves, like a soccer ball. Others were performing aerial tricks for their own entertainment, seemingly oblivious to our group, who stared open-jawed at the elegant marine creatures.

As with students everywhere, our attention wandered, and Rayman patiently repeated dolphin commands and signals until he thought all 10 of us “got it.” All nine, that is. I seemed to be the weakest link, so the patience was probably more for me than the other nine.

Before long, my mammal friends seemed comfortable with me. Rayman then told me to grab their fins as they lined up on each side of me for a short ride around the lagoon. “Swim out about 50 yards. Place hands straight in front of you. Grab the dolphin fins and let the dolphins take you for a ride,” he said for the umpteenth time.

“Piece of cake,” I sputtered as a small wavelet swished through my open mouth. And off I went on my excursion, having finally mastered the hand/fin shake and heeding the “no touching” rules he emphasized.

Next came the second encounter – a real challenge, at least for me. My nine fellow travelers had already swum out and stood on the dolphins. Now I was ready to take the plunge, so to speak. Sensing my nervousness, Rayman repeated his instructions: “legs straight down, arms extended out in a T shape at the sides. Now swim the hell out and wait for your dolphins.

“No worries,” he cooed, as though talking to the baby I was at this point. “They know what to do” was his last reassurance as I felt the solid muscle of a dolphin back docked beneath my feet, and my body gently rise above the surface of the water, gliding across it like a waterskier.

Within two minutes the gig was over. I swam back to where my human pod waited. They greeted my miraculous return with a cheerful round of applause.

I had seriously considered aborting the entire vacation mission, asking myself why a senior citizen and, worse, a widow would leave the routine comfort of a northeast Philly apartment to board a freaking cruise ship and swim with dolphins.

My husband and I had taken our two children when they were kids many decades ago on dolphin encounters. We learned that dolphins had faced enormous threats from fisheries that spread nets for swordfish, shrimp and other sea creatures. Unfortunately, the dolphins also would get tangled in the nets and die.

When we returned home from vacation and I took my kids, Mary and Mikey, food shopping, they inspected each can of tuna before we brought it to the cashier, scrupulously reading the label on the can to ensure the tuna had been caught with dolphin-free nets.

But I need to back up a bit. Each traveler on my latest trip was given an introductory “ice-breaker” before entering the water to get to know a pair of dolphins up close and personal. I buddied up with Jupiter, a large male dolphin who instantly became my main squeeze. Against all feminist instincts, I shamelessly praised aloud his good looks and well-toned body. I met his wandering eye for a second and glided my palm across the smooth skin on his back.

Things were going as smooth as silk when Princess, his friend and real main squeeze, swam in close to us, making clicking noises as if to say, “Ahem, he’s already taken.” Rayman, who stood close by, was already issuing commands to me: “Raise your hand to meet her fin in a high-five, then applaud her when she twirls in a circle.” He then fed the pair a few small fish for obeying commands. I peered into their open mouths. “There are as many as 220 small teeth, good for grabbing food,” he said.

Now I was ready for the big kids’ club activity. I swam out to mid-lagoon, planted my legs straight down and raised my arms, Superman style. Suddenly, I felt the dolphins dock under my feet. Like a waterskier, I felt myself being lifted to the surface, and gliding smoothly across the water.

There were many lessons to be learned that day. Above all, I suspect for others as well as for me, is a sense of the sacredness of our planet, especially the ocean and its marine life. Getting acquainted with these magical creatures in their environment helped me, as it has others, to embrace and to make a commitment to care for the ocean and all marine life to the best of my ability.

Fran Pelham lives in Philadelphia and Beach Haven.







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