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Body Worry : Meeting the Dolphin on His Own Turf

Body Worry

March 13, 1987|REMAR SUTTON

ISLA DE AGUADA, Mexico — The dolphins, six of them, are in an enclosure about 100 yards offshore from this tiny fishing village of thatched huts on the Yucatan peninsula.

We climb into a long fishing boat called a lanchita and pull ourselves out to the enclosure, hand over hand, along a yellow rope tied to a palm tree on the shore and a mangrove stump in the water. We pull gently and keep our voices low.

But the dolphins sense us, even from a distance, and increase the pace of their smooth movements through the water. A bucket of fresh sea trout sits at my feet, and I can't help but wonder if the dolphins are hungry, nervous or both.

Who hasn't dreamed of being able to know a dolphin, have it as a friend, swim with it in the open ocean? But the closest most of us ever come to that experience is watching a dolphin show at a marine park or on television. (Remember "Flipper"?)

If the project I am now participating in succeeds, however, many of us may have a chance to better understand these unnervingly sensitive mammals. The six dolphins I'm getting ready to feed will be trained to interact in the open ocean with humans--rather than perform for us in a theaterlike environment.

First 'Open Release'

Sponsored by the Underwater Explorers Society and Open Ocean Adventures on Grand Bahama Island, the project is the first large-scale "open release" training program ever attempted. It's expensive, and it may not work at all. The dolphins, when they're first released from their enclosures on Grand Bahama, may simply head to sea and never come back.

I am comfortable with that prospect, too. I have, quite honestly, wondered for some time about the ethics of animal capture for human amusement. Even after I saw firsthand the supposedly happy antics of dolphins and killer whales in marine shows, and spending time with trainers of these animals, that worry did not leave me.

Jeannie and Mike Schultz, the trainers who are responsible for working on a daily basis with the dolphins, feel the same way. They had really retired from normal dolphin work because they did not want to train any more dolphins for captive entertainment.

None of our concerns have left us during the last eight days of dolphin capture, either. These gentle creatures, as graceful as gulls floating by on a breeze, don't jump willingly into their enclosures. At first, they react to capture and human touch with fear and anxiety, probably not unlike the trauma you would feel if a space traveler scooped you up and took you, against your will, to Mars.

Feelings Change

With all that said, I now believe projects like this one can be meaningful to us and, ultimately, to all the creatures of the sea. I, for instance, already know the ocean better than most people know their neighborhoods. I have always considered myself respectful of that neighborhood, too.

But my feelings about the ocean as an environment for sensitive, living creatures are somewhat different this week than they were last week. And I know your sensitivity to the world under the sea will be radically different if creatures like dolphins become a reality to you rather than abstractions or amusements.

If I may sermonize for a moment: We know that the world's oceans are vital to life on our planet, yet we humans continue to destroy ocean life and pollute the ocean environment. Perhaps we do so because we do not personally understand the importance of the oceans and the nature of their delicately balanced systems. This project is a small attempt to expand that understanding.

We will fly the dolphins, suspended in foam-lined slings, to Grand Bahama Island in a few days. A marine veterinarian who specializes in dolphins will be flying with them. For perhaps six months, we will feed them and swim with them in a large net-enclosed training area now being built at the Underwater Explorers Society.

They Might Follow

And then we'll open the nets for the first time. If the dolphins really do like us, they'll follow our scuba boats out and dive with us. Eventually, they'll even be trained to interact in shallow water with swimmers and non-swimmers alike.

All people who wish to interact with the dolphins will also be trained in special classes at the society. The point is to get to know the dolphins as themselves, acting in dolphin ways, rather than training them, for instance, to provide an underwater ride for any bozo who thinks it would be fun. And at the end of each day, they will return to their enclosures for the night.

We hope. If they do, the dolphins may be telling us something quite nice. If they don't, they will also be telling us something--that we have a lot more to learn.

You may be wondering what this has to do with my Body Worry project. On the one hand, not much, except that being in better shape has given me the energy, strength, and stamina to undertake the work (no small feat).

On the other hand, the Body Worry experience has helped me, and I hope a lot of you, know how much we can improve our lives through health and fitness. Realizing that our own health is under our control can make us realize that the health of our planet is under our control, too.

Progress Report

Beginning 27th Week Waist: 43 inches 35 inches Right biceps: 12 3/4 inches 12 3/8 inches Flexed: 13 inches 13 1/2 inches Weight: 201 pounds 177 pounds Height: 6' 1" Blood pressure: 128/68 120/64 Pulse: 64 64 Bench press: 55 130 Hunk factor: .00 .33

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