The sun is bright, the air heavy. It's Easter, the busiest week of the year for Sea World's mega-marine park in Orlando, Fla., and the huge whale and dolphin stadium is packed for the early afternoon show. For the crowd--shifting restlessly in Sea World hats and T-shirts--this will be the peak experience. They have chuckled over the antics of the penguins and walruses, gaped at the tropical fish and gasped at the razor-toothed sharks. But this is what they've come for. It's the elusive mystique of the whales and dolphins that has drawn them here from all corners of the Eastern Seaboard on their spring vacations. * Hucksters move up and down the aisles, hawking fuzzy killer whale and dolphin puppets whose eyes wink in the sun, while below, behind the bright-blue stadium pool, the real animals circle nervously in small holding pens and exhale wetly, like human skin divers clearing their snorkels. * A metallic fanfare trumpets over the PA system, and from behind a glittery backdrop prance the trainers: blond, college-age men and women in colorful wet suits, waving to the crowd with pre-programmed smiles. Applause roars out from the bleachers; backs straighten, slack expressions tighten, and cameras rise to the ready.
Two beluga whales, two pseudo-orcas (false killer whales), two Pacific white-sided and two Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are released from their holding tanks and swim into the main pool. With a gush of sentimental music, Sea World's "New Friends" show begins. Like the crowd, the animals are smiling--but not because they're happy, necessarily, or because they've been trained to. Their jaw lines curve upward naturally. Those smiles, frozen into place by bone structure, have helped make them the star attractions at marine parks throughout the world for more than 35 years.
At the cues of trainers who toss fish and blow whistles, the animals perform a series of humanlike behaviors, nodding "yes" to questions, waving "hello" and "goodby" with their flippers and tails, "shaking hands" with and "kissing" nervous audience members and sidling up to the edge of the pool to "take a bow." The crowd responds with breathless oohs and ahs: "Aren't they magnificent!" "So intelligent!" "Look at that--they're dancing to the music. Isn't that cute!"
The climax is a spectacular water ballet. The whales and dolphins hurtle around the tank, faster and faster, then explode above the surface with a series of graceful flips and twisting dives. Applause echoes sharply off the corrugated-steel awning overhead, and some in the crowd even rise to their feet, clapping and whistling.
A powerful fascination draws us to the creatures dubbed "the humans of the sea" by marine biologist John Lilly, who conducted the first serious scientific studies of bottlenose dolphins, in the late 1950s and early '60s. It is a mesmerizing, almost eerie sight when one of these creatures bobs up out of the water and fixes you with its piercing eyes--the warm-blooded gaze of a mammal emanating from the body of a fish. That dichotomy spawned myths of mermaids among ancient sailors and has continued to feed modern misconceptions about the animals' "super intelligence." Although researchers have discredited Lilly's claims that cetaceans (whales and dolphins) are smarter than human beings--dolphins, it turns out, rate somewhere between dogs and apes on the intelligence scale--marine parks continue to promote the illusion that the creatures, with their frozen smiles, are somehow special. The business of first sharpening, then satisfying, the public's hunger to see and touch these animals has spawned a cetacean gold rush, a multimillion-dollar industry whose outposts range from elaborate marine parks with Vegas-style shows and petting pools to "swim with dolphins" facilities at resort hotels and tiny tanks at seasonal amusement parks. Today, about 400 bottlenose dolphins and 18 killer whales are in captivity in the U.S., along with an estimated 80 other types of whales and dolphins.