Hello and welcome to the very first Curacao travel journal instalment!
Rather than diving straight into the stories, I thought it might be more fun to start things off with introducing you to the dolphins and their home. After all, cool stories are one thing, but it helps to know a little about where
those stories happen and who star in them. Plus, the facilities of the Dolphin Academy are so neat l that I couldn't miss out on telling about them. First things first, here's a little park map I whipped up with the help of google maps to get you oriented (I edited the satellite images a bit to show the up-to-date state of things):
THE CURACAO SEAQUARIUM AND THE DOLPHIN ACADEMY
As you can see, the Dolphin Academy (number 10) is part of a greater whole, the Curacao Seaquarium, which also houses several other semi-independent organisations and instances, like the Curacao Dolphin Therapy Centre (CDTC) and the Animal Encounters area. I love this place not only because the exhibits are beautiful, and the whole look of the park just wonderful, but also because there's so much education going on everywhere. All the aquariums have elaborate signs telling about their inhabitants in great detail, the feeding presentations always explain something about the animals while also allowing people to get close to them, and the dolphin training presentations are not the typical 'circus shows'. Yes, there's music and yes the dolphins do big jumps, but at the same time people learn a little about dolphin anatomy and behaviour. I also love how the trainers and all the individual dolphins are always introduced. Let's run through the list of places to go and things to see.
When you walk to the Seaquarium you first go past the parking lot (not visible on the map), then take a right turn, and there it is right in front of you: a bridge, which connects the Aquarium and the Royal Sea Aquarium Resort with the mainland. When you stand in front the bridge, this is what you see: static.panoramio.com/photos/la…
You see boats in a small marina on your right, and shallow seas on your left. The colour of the water there is gorgeous - absolutely typical postcard blue, and usually very clear too though it may go a little fuzzy from time to time (that's what you get with sandy bottoms). There's the orange buildings of the Royal Resort, a huge ship stuck on land - we'll get to that one - the staff entrance next to it, and all the way on the left is the regular guest entrance, with the yellow bit on the doorway. It's usually the place where you get a ticket or grab your reservations, but with a wristband to show you're part of the Dolphins in Depth programme you can walk right in - oh I felt so cool :'D
Once you're through the entrance you can either walk straight ahead alongside the lagoons, or take an immediate right turn into the main building. Inside that honeycomb-roofed structure is the actual aquarium. There's some 35 tanks with all sorts of beautiful fish species in there, I do believe all of them natives to Curacao waters. There are a couple of nurse sharks in a separate exhibit, which you can pet and feed under strict supervision during feeding presentations, a petting pool with sea cucumbers and snails, and two very big sting rays you can pet at all times (at least if they choose to come close!), and also feed during presentations. There's also a central exhibit for a small group of five Caribbean flamingoes. Besides the animal exhibits there's a snackbar inside, as well as the different departments' offices and info desks; so if you have any business specifically with for example the Dolphin Academy you go through a door to the Dolphin Academy area, rather than to the info desk of the aquarium itself.
This is the place where most people will watch the dolphin training presentations from. Almost all presentations are given from the blue platform directly in front of it, so it's the most obvious place to be. However, there's also a little lookout tower immediately to the right (on the map) of the stands which gives a wonderful overview over the main pool - makes for some cool photo! In fact it's a good place to take pictures from show or not, because it offers a view of two dolphin lagoons, meaning you can keep your eye out for a photo op in two places at once
Located in the Dolphin Academy part of the Aquarium's building, this is where the offices are and where I got all of my dolphin lessons. When you walk through the doors of the Dolphin Academy the main info desk is on your right, after that you can either go left to the offices or right to the photo shop and gift shop. If you're cool and have authorisation you can also walk straight ahead: through the door and outside, to the dolphin area (you end up under the trees at the 10c pool). There's also a theatre right next to the office which plays documentaries about dolphins, but it was under construction while I was there, so nothing to see or hear except the lovely sound of drills and other machinery : D
Via the photo shop there's another 'authorised personnel only' door, which leads to the fish kitchen and the trainer area. It's the area between the big ass ship and the aquarium building, and so the same area you would walk right into if you'd come through the service entrance. This is the place where wetsuits hang to dry, Green iguanas enjoy the sunshine, trainers have lunch, pigeons clean up after the trainers who had lunch, and of course where, inside the fish kitchen, fish is thawed, sorted and put into buckets. It's a really wonderful place to just hang out and chill. There's a little breeze, making the heat nice and bearable, and even without the dolphins there's enough animals around. Also, note the green tree tops between numbers 5 and 6 on the map - they grow straight through the roof of the wetsuit area. They made holes in the roof so the palm trees could stay. Love it.
5 Fish kitchen / trainer area
The big big boat! There's actually a really cool story to go with this, because it is not just any boat, but an ex-minesweeper from the Royal Dutch Navy. It was about to be decommissioned and pulled apart for spare parts when Dutch, the founder of the Curacao Seaquarium, opted to buy it instead. So Dutch bought that huge ship from then-prince, now-king Willem Alexander of the Netherlands... for a symbolic 1 dollar. But wait, there is more! Ever watched Jacques-Yves Cousteau's 'The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau'? And noticed the ship on there? That ship is called the Calypso, and it is the exact same year, make and model as the ship in the Aquarium. So while the one minesweeper stands guard in the aquarium, serving as living quarters (and a party deck I have been told), did her sister ship sail the seven seas with Jacques Cousteau's amazing ocean exploration crew. Talk about cool!
6 Ex-minesweeper / party deck
There we are, the very first animal exhibit: the Sea lions live in two netted off area of sea, so their whole pen is in direct contact with the sea. There's wild fish in there that come and go, and they have a few places of land to haul out on. Other than on the Sunday (when I did not yet go inside, as the programme only started on Monday) I did not really see much of the Sea lions so I'm afraid I can't tell much more about the animals or their exhibit. You see, the exhibit is the only one you can see from outside the park - and only from outside the park - so not a place you really get to see much while inside, unless you especially go there for the presentation.
7 Sea lions
8 Animal encountersThen there's the man-made outside lagoons. The very first you'll come across is on the north side of the park, it is right across the entrance of the aquarium building. There's two smallish lagoons, divided by a pier. 8a is the domain of a couple of Lemon sharks. No way to see them from beneath the surface, but just seeing those big, typical shapes moving through the water with amazing ease is fantastic in itself. Brown pelicans are always around, and even during feeding time there's a few brave or stupid enough to stay in the water, trying to jab scraps of fish from in front of the Lemon shark's jaws. 8b makes up the animal encounters area with BIG fish, BIG Nurse sharks, BIG Lemon sharks and slightly less big sea turtles, and as the name of the place suggests you can swim with the fishies there or feed and encounter the sharks through a glass wall (the turtles and sharks are kept separate from the main fish area). Inside that main fish area is a super neat 'glass bottom' boat. It does not actually have a glass bottom per se, but rather lots of windows beneath the surface. A sit-in aquarium! It's amazing to see the fish there, some are positively huge. The biggest are without doubt the Tarpon and this one ridiculously big Goliath grouper called Herbie. The Nurse sharks, while on the other side of a net, are an impressive sight to behold. The biggest sharks I've seen so far in my life, at least from underwater - they're almost as big as the dolphins are.
If you continue walking past the Animal Encounters area, you'll come across the Curacao Dolphin Therapy Centre or CDTC on your left hand side. You're not allowed to go into the green-roofed building or walk onto the piers, that's only for the animal caretakers and of course the people who come there for therapy. However there are some shaded benches in the 'corner' on the main path where you can have a seat and take a look. You're not allowed to take photos of videos though, for the privacy of the participating families. Children with mental or physical abilities come to the CDTC for therapy. It does not operate on the idea or belief that the dolphins have some special magic healing powers - that's bollocks. However, it does operate on the idea that dolphins are incredibly fun to be with, and so interaction with them is the ultimate reward for children. A little girl who has trouble speaking will more than happily ask things in a correct, complete sentence if that means she gets to pet the dolphin or give him a fish. And the little boy whose legs don't function properly won't mind working hard on his physical exercises if it means getting to swim with the dolphins later on. So besides the child and the dolphin trainers, their therapist(s) and of course family also come along. The CDTC is connected to the Dolphin Academy; dolphins from the Academy occasionally get moved to the CDTC and vice versa.
9 Curacao Dolphin Therapy Centre (CDTC)
Then going round further, there's a big fat pier to separate the CDTC from a couple of other big lagoons, which make up the Dolphin Academy. This pier, too, is a restricted access area. Basically as a visitor, you can only walk around the aquarium on 'ground' level, go to the animal encounters area, see the CDTC and part of the Dolphin Academy, walk up to the watch tower/stand, and then the path leads back inside. It's only when you're a trainer or are participating in the programme and have permission from the trainers that you can step over the fence and walk down one 'level' so you're at sea level. If you hop the fence at the big fat pier, you can walk all the way along the lagoons, past the stands, past the offices, and back to the trainer's area.
10 Dolphin Academy
The lagoons are positively gorgeous. All natural except the rocky barrier, and like the Sea lion exhibit in direct contact with the sea through nets. Some of the waves even make it through the rock barriers creating a nice little swell for the dolphins to enjoy. All the lagoons are roundabout four to seven metres deep (the depth varies from place to place), the only really shallow places are next to the piers on the far left. There, both in 10c and 10d, platforms have been put up underwater, next to the fences, so that the water is about waist-deep when you stand on them. This is for the dolphin Encounter programmes. All the lagoons contain rock formations and even some coral, and there are wild, live fish aplenty which the dolphins often catch and eat for fun. The water is this most gorgeous turquoise blue when the sun shines, or a little greenish in different light, and all in all looks wild. I was so excited when I looked over the lagoons, and through the lens of my camera saw a couple of dolphins excitedly porpoising through little waves, in blue waters. If you'd take just that photo, you could sell it off as them being wild, and I love that you can (normally it is so easy to tell pictures were taken in captivity). Training sessions or demonstrations are done either from the piers, from the rocks or from the blue platforms. Several programmes are also offered to tourists: the encounter, where participants stand in waist-deep water and meet a dolphin up close, this is only done from the underwater platforms on the far left of the lagoon; the swim where participants get to pet a dolphin while swimming with them and also do some games, which is done from/in front of any of the three blue platforms; and the snorkel which is similar to the swim, except people wear a mask, are allowed to dive down and also participate in an echolocation experiment - this programme, too, is done from/in front of any of the blue platforms.
10a is South pool or simply South. This is the main lagoon of the Academy and houses the largest group of dolphins: three mothers with their calves, plus two other females. The training demonstrations are usually done here, although they may also be given in East or North to shake things up a bit and give different dolphins some more attention. 10b is East pool or East, where the mothers and young calves live. Currently home to three moms and their adorable babies! The dolphins are moved to East to give birth, and then stay there until the young ons are big enough to be integrated into the main pod. Mothers will then stay with their child until they have rejected it themselves, after that they can become pregnant again. 10c Is the North pool, or North. It currently holds 'the boys': three young rough and tumble lads. Socially speaking they are not well mannered, they bully the other dolphins which is why they're separated. Back in the old days Copan, the alpha male, would have taken care of such squabbles and taught all three of them a lesson about politeness, but with Copan having passed away the trainers must now teach this same lesson (though with a lot less teeth and muscle work..) 10d Is a new area, which I suppose will be called West. Though the pier was already there for a short while, the pool was just being fenced off on my last days at the academy, so it did not hold any dolphins yet. It will serve to solve the boys problem: with three different pools to divide the main group of dolphins over, the trainers can work on getting these boys socialised one by one, for it's usually only when they're together that they turn mean. So with an extra pool the trainers can sort of put away the remaining boys as well as any dolphins from the main pod that might still not get along with the one boy that's outside for training.
MEET THE DOLPHINSAnd now, the moment you've all been waiting for... dolphins! Okay, maybe not such a surprise since most of you have probably seen these in your inbox already haha : p The Dolphin Academy currently houses seventeen dolphins, spread out over three lagoons. There's also a couple more dolphins living at the CDTC, but besides Bonnie (a female from Honduras) and a male dolphin I'm not certain who or how many (I do believe there are four?). Below you'll find a list of the current residents of the Dolphin Academy, click on the pics to access their profiles! Each profile obviously has a photo, but also some stats about the animal, their personalities and top tips for identifying all these lovelies There's also some neat personal detailllsss in there. For example, Serena has a thing for pelicans!