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Swimming Alongside Dolphins in the Bahamas

July 10, 1988|BETTE THOMPSON | Thompson is a free-lance writer living in Tacoma, Wash

FREEPORT, Bahamas — The sleek nose of a dolphin nudges your feet. When it surfaces with that wraparound dolphin grin, you rub its head. Then another curious dolphin appears.

These animals display a sense of friendliness, and your instinct is to slip into the water for a playful romp with them. Lately, many visitors to Grand Bahama Island are doing just that.

The "Dolphin Experience" is a one-of-a-kind research project under way at the Underwater Explorers Society (Unexso).

Six Atlantic Ocean bottlenose dolphins are being trained to interact with snorkelers and divers. Visitors can swim with them and take part in their training.

It is expected that in a few months the dolphins will be released daily to swim with divers on an open coral reef. It is the first non-military program of this type.

"These animals are not being trained to perform in a show," John Englander, Unexso president, said. He hopes that interest in swimming and diving with the dolphins will help support additional dolphin research.

Arrived From Mexico

The six- to seven-foot dolphins arrived from Mexico by chartered plane in February, 1987. They are periodically checked by marine veterinary specialists.

The dolphins are intelligent, loving creatures. They weigh about 225 pounds, and their ages are 3 to 6 years. Each one has its own personality. The usual life span of a dolphin is 20 to 40 years. They eat 20 to 25 pounds of fish a day--herring and others imported from Canada.

Each has a name: Uno, Cayla, Stripe, Robala, Bimini and Lucaya, some of which were winning entries in a name-the-dolphins contest for Grand Bahama Island schoolchildren.

"Once the dolphins are released to swim on the reef," said Mike Schultz, their trainer, "it's questionable if they can be considered to be in captivity. If they come back to the pen after a dive, it's because they want to. They'll definitely have a choice."

Early training taught the dolphins simple tasks to get them used to a behavior-reward relationship. Now they are being taught to follow a small boat around the pen next to the Unexso dock. This will be the boat they will eventually follow to and from the reef.

The dolphins glide in a smooth, quiet rhythm, appearing to enjoy each other's company. They communicate through a variety of whistles, clicks, squeaks and groans.

Swimming up to visitors and making eye contact, their reaction is one of friendly acceptance--neither shy nor aggressive.

"They seem to like physical contact," one visitor said. "Kind of like a house pet giving strangers a get-acquainted sniff."

You can swim with the dolphins every day except Saturday.

"Most of these animals are learning extremely fast," Shultz said. "We may be able to take our first dolphin to the reef sometime this year."

The dolphin group's dominant male is Uno. Dolphins are not a fish, but a sea mammal that evolved from land millions of years ago. It has no sense of smell and breathes through a blow hole on top. An umbilical cord is attached it to its mother at birth.

Two Separate Stomachs

A dolphin cannot breathe underwater, and although capable of holding its breath for seven minutes, likes to surface every 20 seconds. It has about 100 cone-shaped teeth used to catch and hold fish but not to chew them. Like a cow, it digests its food in two separate stomachs.

The dolphin's most interesting feature is its sonar system. While it can see underwater, visibility is limited, so it responds to sounds via pinhole ears behind the eyes.

The bottlenose apparently makes the highest and lowest frequency noises produced by dolphins. Also, according to Navy researchers, they are equipped with the most advanced form of sonar known.

What's it like to swim with these creatures? "You never feel threatened," said one swimmer. "If anything, you sense a strong expression of love."

She reached out to one dolphin, held onto its flipper, and it pulled her along for a short ride. "They feel soft and silky and seem alert and intelligent."

Another swimmer said: "They seem genuinely happy that we are visiting their world, and appear to be having as much fun as we are."

Visitors to Unexso, across from the Lucayan Beach Resort and Casino, can swim with the dolphins at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Up to five people can take part in a 30-minute dolphin seminar and then swim with them. The cost is $40.

At those same hours, for $5 per person, up to 10 people can sit on the pier and take part in an informative dolphin seminar, and can then watch the trainers as they work with the dolphins.

To be an assistant trainer for a day costs $95. From 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Schultz takes on four assistants.

For more information on the "Dolphin Experience" and diving packages, contact Underwater Explorers Society, Box-2433, Freeport, Grand Bahama, Bahamas, phone (800) 992-DIVE.

For details about Grand Bahama Island, contact the Bahamas Tourist Office, 3450 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 208, Los Angeles 90010, phone (213) 385-0033.

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