I know it's been a good long while since the last installment, and this one definitely should have come earlier. My apologies for that! This journal is pretty long, but I tried to pack it full of pictures to keep it interesting and varied, and prevent it from looking like one big wall of text. Please let met know if you like this lay-out or would rather see it differently! Also, I've highlighted several words, like dates and important parts of the day so you can easily find where you need to be if you're, for example, only interested in the dolphin part of the story.
It was Monday the 16th of march and darn was I excited. Not just at the prospect of finally meeting the dolphins and the people and starting the programme, but also because I wasn't feeling very well since I'd arrived in Curacao and was afraid I might have to cancel. Because, while it says in the title that this is 'day 1', it was in fact day three. [Warning, if you're only here for the dolphins and don't care about descriptions of plane flights or travel experiences, feel free to skip this part.] On Saturday I had my 10-hour long flight to the island, which was incredibly boring. Usually I look out the window during flights, but since we flew across the Atlantic Ocean... there wasn't much to see (or sea, hahahah get it). The best part of the flight had to be the turbulence, when the whole plane went up and down and shook like a little inflatable boat on high waves, and all the people went 'oh!' and 'ah!'. Good times I arrived on the island late at night, where I got picked up by the landlord. He's an awesome guy, real friendly too - but please keep in mind this was my very first time travelling alone. And then to hear stories+details about burglars, cops that will shoot you in your knees, and the guard dogs that can give off a nasty bite does not really help calm the nerves. The barbed wire around the rooms also seemed to spell ominous things (even if the birds did not mind at all). But! Things got better after a while, I just needed to get used to a different kind of living.
'Border security' as I'd like to call this photo; a Tropical mockingbird keeping watch from above the barbed wire.
On Sunday I had a free day to (try to) acclimate to the very different climate. It was probably that hot and humid weather that was getting to me because I had not eaten anything since halfway through my flight - and still did not feel like it at all. It also didn't help that my body had very convincingly woken me up at 4 in the morning, believing it was already 9. However I luckily had a very nice room neighbour, and he gave me some aspirins that definitely helped, plus some very welcome companionship and friendliness. What also helped were the animals, cause there's a lot! A separate journal will be dedicated solely to them, but for now: "Right out of my room and a minuscule hummingbird flew by, a Brown pelican was sat on a rock, the first Magnificent frigatebirds have already passed, pigeons fly around and coo a peculiar tune, a Green heron was out fishing, two Tropical mockingbirds are singing beautifully and there's also a bunch of other birds. Most noticeably very little black birds with yellow stripes who make a shrill sound." Later I'd learn they are called Bananaquits, or Sugar thieves as they're known in Dutch.
He isn't happy to see you.
Because I still felt a bit like a kitchen rag I also went for a walk to the aquarium, to check how long it would take me exactly (22 minutes in case you're interested). Great idea! The fresh air worked wonders, and I saw some more animals too: most interestingly a flock of Brown-throated parakeets who, unlike their name might suggest, have bright yellow heads here. Also my first Green iguana, who was chilling next to the Aquarium. I also got to see some sea lions already, figured out how to get in with my reservation the next day, and all in all just felt better from being outside.
So, back to Monday and the fun really started. Not unimportantly my feeling-like-balls had mostly subdued, the idea of 'eating' seemed like an acceptable one again and this time I did not wake up in the middle of the night. I also went out to take some pictures of the birds near the rooms and the surroundings, the very first of the trip (so yeah, the photos above were also in fact taken on Monday). Unfortunately I had the camera at the wrong settings, so most pics turned out pretty horrible. The ISO was way too high, making only the photos taken in strong lighting conditions acceptable. So you'll see many 'little' pictures in this journal and not too many big ones, but that'll get better next time!
Although I knew park admission was included in the 'Dolphins in Depth' programme, I didn't want to come too early because I like to be precisely on time for new things. I walked to the aquarium again, which was VERY hot but fun to do, and once there getting inside was a breeze. Just getting out the reservation forms, straight inside to the dolphin academy, signing some declarations - and then I got THE BRACELET. The little green piece of paper I have come to treasure during my stay. It's basically one of those stick-on paper bracelets you can't take off without breaking it, to show you're participating in the programme. It lets the guards know it's cool when you're in otherwise restricted areas, and means you can walk straight into the park without paying or check up or anything LIKE A BOSS. It's awesome.
Also awesome are the frigatebirds, you see them a lot in the park. This juvenile still has white in his plumage, but the adults are all black, spare for their bright red throat pouch.
After signing all the appropriate paperwork I still had a few spare minutes left before the programme would start, so I just had to go out and finally see the dolphins for the first time. There was no presentation or anything going on, but the dolphins put on enough of a show in their free time. Especially the little baby I'd later get to know as Suku was entertaining herself endlessly - and me along with it. She has a real knack for taking things in her mouth (seaweed, coral, sponges, anything that fits really) and throwing them about, only to pick them up again and repeat the game. At some point during her throwing she suddenly noticed the birds though, and promptly stopped, proceeding to look up at the sky with incredible wonder and delight at the frigatebirds and pelicans that constantly flew past.
At one o'clock it was time to go to the bench of the Dolphin Academy department, and wait for our teacher George Kieffer to arrive. He's head of the dolphin department (who wouldn't want that job title?) and an exceedingly cool dude. He's worked with dolphins for years and has been involved in every part of their being in marine parks, from the capturing process to the training, as well as research on wild animals. Also, I say 'we' because for the first two days of the programme I was joined by another student: a boy from Canada. Someone else who joined us was Iris, one of the dolphin trainers. She'd already been at the park for a good while but had never joined one of these courses before and so took the opportunity to experience the lessons and brush up on some knowledge.
The lessons/lectures were always given from within George's office, and on this first day we discussed the strange, sometimes mystical view people have of dolphins, and the history of the park. Especially the latter subject was incredibly interesting, mostly because everything was discussed very openly, including the capturing process. Yes, the first dolphins of the Dolphin Academy were taken from the wild, by George himself actually, and no, that is not as horrible as it sounds. Just to keep things straight, I am opposed to wild capture of dolphins, because in most cases the way in which it is done is appalling to say the least (plus with the current state of captive breeding it's a bit unnecessary too). But, as I have heard and seen, there are right ways to do it as well. 'Right' being from the dolphin's perspective here, of course purely moral objections can never be properly addressed with facts alone. The way in which the dolphins of the Dolphin Academy were collected is the way in which many of the USA's captive dolphins hailing from Mississippi/Gulf of Mexico were captured during the late 1900s, and also the way in which dolphins in Sarasota, Florida are still being captured for research purposes. First off there is a very careful selection of which dolphins can be caught. Adults are off-limits because they have a status within the community. They are important members who rely on and are relied upon by others, and taking them out would leave a power vacuum. Babies of course cannot be taken either, if not for the cruelty then for the fact they still need to nurse. Only the small pods of juveniles are targeted: they are basically on their own, not dependent upon anyone outside their group. They have left their mother and, although they would normally return to her (if female) or team up with a partner (if male), they are not missed by the rest of the community if they disappear, as crude as it sounds.
As for actual capturing methods: once a small pod is located in shallow waters (shallow enough for humans to stand in comfortably) a very large net is laid out in a circle around them. At first the circle is so big the dolphins don't even know that they have been trapped, and they simply continue on their way. Slowly the net is pulled in, making the circle tighter and tighter. However, even when it becomes abundantly clear the dolphins have nowhere to go anymore, they remain calm. Unlike trapping methods of the 60s, which relied on the dolphins panicking and entangling themselves in the nets, humans are now entered into the netted circle to prevent exactly that. And then they just wait for the dolphins to approach. Because no matter how alien the whole experience is for them, the young dolphins are nonetheless curious enough about the strange humans that they voluntarily swim up to them. At that point, when close enough, the human will grab the dolphin and bring him or her onto the boat. There they are put on a rubber/foam mat and kept moist until the others are collected too. Again, throughout all this, the dolphins remain completely calm. If they freak out, start breathing too fast or squirming too much, they are simply released back into the wild and not captured again. However this was very rarely the case, for as far as George had experienced. Usually the dolphins vocalise a bit when they are on the boat alone, but as soon as they are joined by another dolphin they quickly calm down.
What surprised me most however, was to hear how the dolphins were utterly untraumatised by such a capture event. In fact, some seemed to consider it a game! When George captured dolphins for USA marine parks he sometimes had to return an animal who had for example a tattered dorsal fin or a big scar, as these parks only wanted pretty dolphins. He'd often come across the same dolphins again on later capture runs, but rather than turning and swimming away, the dolphins let themselves be captured all over again without a fuss. Some dolphins he captured five or six times and still they'd be as calm as the day they first saw humans on the boat. Also after the dolphins are taken to the holding facility where they acclimate to their new surroundings, they are being closely monitored. They need to adapt to taking dead fish rather than capturing live food for themselves, and this is an important milestone in a newly captured dolphin's development. If they refused to eat after three days, or were freaking out, these dolphins too would be returned to the wild - exactly to the spot where they were captured, so they would have no trouble finding their way back home. Now, while I still am against the collecting of new dolphins from the wild for keeping in marine parks, if it ever had to be done, this is the way. Although it morally does not feel right to me, I literally cannot think of a logical (and non-emotional) reason why not to approve a practice like this. The wild dolphins left behind do not suffer from the absence of the individuals taken, the captured dolphins are stress-free and basically choose to live their life in captivity and work with people, and if they do freak out in the end, they can simply go back home. It was really interesting for me to learn all this, and it just goes to show that the things you've held for 'bad' for years, can in fact turn out not to be so horrible at all. (Not taking away from the fact that most capture methods currently deployed are deplorable).
The Dolphin Academy dolphins were taken from a small stretch of Honduran coastline, originally destined for the Roatan Institute of Marine Science (RIMS). The owner of RIMS had come to Mississippi requesting some dolphins for his facility. However, a flight from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Roatan would be rather stressful to the dolphins, and unnecessary if the dolphins could instead be collected from the Honduran coast. So they travelled to Honduras, solicited an unrelated team of North American marine scientists to assess the Coastal bottlenose dolphin population, and based on that were given a capture quota. In the process they also devised new Honduran laws for the protection of cetaceans, setting the requirements needed to legally own a dolphin, so not every Tom, Dick and Harry could go out and capture a dolphin for themselves. The captured dolphins thrived, reproducing like, well, dolphins, and eventually the RIMS got so full that some animals had to be transferred to a different facility. And that facility was the Dolphin Academy. Copan, Bonnie, DeeDee, Annie and Tela were the original Dolphin Academy dolphins, and while Copan has since passed, all others still live in the park. Then in 2007 five more dolphins arrived from Cuba: Renata, Caiyo, Roxette, Romeo and Ritiña. They had been 'ordered' a long time ago, but because Cuba's dolphins are so high in demand it literally took years before the Dolphin Academy got a call back. Frankly the Cuba dolphins had almost been forgotten, and of course the Academy already had their Honduran dolphins, but the Cubans were taken in nonetheless, to at least ensure they'd live in a good place.
Then, at half past two, it was time for our very first programme with the dolphins! We went to do an 'encounter' with trainer Ginny, and lovely dolphin Machu. As you could read in his profile, Machu is a young man, only 3 years old. His mom Annie, 18 years old, was doing an encounter right next to us with a handful of tourists, and by delphinus he could not stop pestering her at first. He literally started the programme with the attention span of a cabbage It was a load of fun though, to see from his behaviour just how young he was. He'd swim off at high speed to the other end of the lagoon to check out what was going on over there, or jump on top of his mom (who you could almost heart think 'I'm working now! Get off me!!'), if not attempting to insert his 'manly parts' - only to come back after a minute or two, happy and cheerful as ever, basically screaming 'I'm back guys! Isn't it awesome?!' Of course while funny, it is not exactly proper behaviour so every time he got the standard 3-second time-out before the trainer continued asking behaviours. However once he got his head in the game he really was fantastically mannered, and very focussed.
The Canadian guy and I were the only two people doing this encounter, which was awesome because it meant more Machu time for both of us. We stood in waist-deep water on a sort of platform that was attached to one of the lagoon's nets. So there was still a fair bit of water between the platform and the bottom of the lagoon, where Machu went a couple of times to chase fish. We got to pet Machu all over, on his belly, back and sides. We also got to feel his dorsal fin, flippers and flukes, and the trainer showed us his mouth, eyes and ears. For those of you who have never touched a dolphin: they are very soft and rubbery. On their back they're like a wet rubber boot but smoother, on their belly more like a peeled hard-boiled egg. Their fins are peculiarly stiff and oddly come closest to feeling like a thick strand of kelp (really that is an incredible match to dolphin skin - if ever you get the chance, touch that kelp!). Dolphins also have very, very fine little ridges on their skin, called cutaneous ridges. While I did not feel them on the dolphins in the Dutch dolphinarium, I did feel them on the Curacao dolphins - basically it feels like rubbing your fingers over one of those 3-D ribbly card things, but then in miniature. After a while your fingertips actually go numb. We also got Annie with us for a very short moment, while the tourists next to us did some photo moments with Machu. Which we also did, after we got 'our' dolphin back: we got to shake his flippers, and got a 'kiss' on our cheeks. The best part was the 'cradle' though: you sit down on your knees on the platform, the dolphin will swim right up to and against you, and you put your arms around their belly, lifting them up out of the water a little. Amazing!
Also, that's Ginny's hand near his tail there - little boy Machu was heavy haha :'D After we had our photo moments and the tourists had left the water, we got to stay and practise our first hand signals. We did belly up, backward tailwalk, spin, splash, jump, and wave goodbye. It was interesting how similar many of the hand signals were to the ones I got to do in our Dutch dolphinarium for the same behaviours. Possibly to keep training consistent between animals that get sent to different parks?
After our awesome time with Machu (and Annie), it was back to George for the last bit of our lesson, still about the history of the park. Somewhere halfway through, George suddenly got a call from the park vet about medicine doses for an ill dolphin. I had thought things would be a bit 'hush hush' - that we would be asked to wait in his office while George went off to talk to the trainers. But no! In fact it was quite the opposite: we were openly invited to come along to the CDTC (Curacao Dolphin Therapy Centre), where the dolphin was at, and basically be allowed a backstage visit to the place. While George and Iris went to the trainers, we stayed with the ill dolphin and his friend. He was swimming around strongly despite everything, and was indeed doing better at the end of my week. When he came back, George also told us some more about the disease, how it was being treated and how the dolphin was recovering.
At half past four there is the last training presentation of the day, and we were allowed to sit in on it and watch from real close up (basically the edge of the pool). We did not participate or anything, but just being able to see the dolphins in such close-up was awesome. Besides, not having to get hands on allowed me my first opportunity to photograph the Dolphin Academy's inhabitants in action. Sadly however, with the afternoon's low lighting, I really barely have any photos from this presentation that are good enough to be put up in full. So lots of little pics here, and just one big one.
By then it was almost five in the afternoon, which meant closing time for the park and for us time to go home. However, I couldn't resist taking some snapshots of the Caribbean flamingoes that also live in the aquarium before I left. While some were busy preening their feathers to perfection, others were sieving the water which was really fun to watch. In case you did not know: the flamingo's odd beak is a very specific adaptation to their method of feeding - which happens upside down. They just lower their heads, curl them upside down, and sieve the water through their ribbed beak by very quickly opening and closing it, while slowly swinging their head from side to side.
Well that does it for this journal, I hope you guys enjoyed and like written above, if you have any feedback about the length/layout of this journal, please comment below.
See you next time!