* * * * *
Type: Animal interaction
Time: About 30 minutes
Kelly says: An unforgettable experience
Your dolphin encounter begins when you arrive at your appointed cabana at the appointed hour for a briefing. This is primarily an exercise in heightening your anticipation with a brief video, but a trainer does put in an appearance to offer some pertinent safety tips, such as keeping your hands away from the dolphin’s blow hole. (“It’d be sorta like me sticking my finger in your nose,” she points out helpfully.)
Following the briefing you and your “pod” of anywhere from six to nine people will be led to the lagoon. I have heard conflicting reports on the maximum group size for the dolphin encounter. Nine people is said to be the maximum and seven or eight the preferred number. I have been in groups of six and eight. At water’s edge you meet the two trainers who will guide your encounter. Your first challenge is getting used to the chilly water, which is kept between 72 and 76 degrees Fahrenheit for the comfort of the dolphins.
The dolphins make a splashy entrance, zipping from their holding pen and leaping into the air in greeting before splitting off to head to their respective human pods. Eagerly, you wade to the edge of a sharp drop-off to meet your new dolphin friend. The dolphin you meet may have been specially trained for duty at Discovery Cove or may be an old pro. I once swam with Capricorn, an aging movie star of sorts who was 36 and had appeared in Jaws III.
Here at the edge of deep water you and the other members of the group will get to rub down your dolphin, a tactile interaction the dolphin obviously enjoys. Then you take the plunge into deep water for the main part of the experience. How many people go out at one time is a function of the size and makeup of your group. Our trainers said they usually try take people out as couples, but sometimes they go out in threes.
Exactly what you do with your dolphin will depend to some extent on what behaviors the dolphin has been trained to perform, but you will almost certainly be able to give some hand signals to which the dolphin will respond by chattering excitedly or spinning in a circle. The interaction is carefully planned so that every member of your group gets equal access to the dolphin and no one feels cheated of one-on-one time with their frisky friend. You will also have a chance to feed your new friend several times in the course of the interaction. This tends to keep the dolphin interested, but don’t be surprised if your dolphin decides to take an unscheduled break to check out something of greater interest elsewhere in the pool. This is normal apparently and if your dolphin shows sufficient lack of interest in the proceedings the trainers will simply call in an understudy.
For most people, the highlight of the interaction comes at the end when they place an arm over the dolphin’s back and cup their other hand over a flipper and get towed back to the shallows. There they pose in a sort of hug with their new-found friend for the still and video photographers who have been carefully documenting the entire dolphin interaction for posterity and profit.
Before you leave, you can stop by the photo pick-up area (to your left, across from Guests Services) and see the photos and videos taken of your dolphin interaction. They’re available for purchase, of course, in a variety of formats. The pricing system is complicated and you can quickly run up an enormous tab. Everything is available “a la carte,” but if you order one of two packages, the a la carte pricing for other options goes down. To give you an idea, here are some sample prices, which do not include tax.
The Adventure Package ($135) consists of five 6x8 inch prints, a photo on a key ring, and a digital CD with all the photos from your experience. The Basic Package ($50) is three 6x8 prints and a key ring. To these you can add a DVD of your dolphin interaction for $50 ($75 a la carte). The least expensive a la carte offering is a single 6x8 inch print or one 4x6 inch print and four wallet-sized prints for $20. Of all the elements at Discovery Cove, the pricing of the photos and video was the only thing I heard the slightest complaint about.
Tip: Pick your photos up early and stash them in your locker. A line starts forming at around 3:00 p.m. and it gets longer as the day wears on.
Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take those nifty disposable underwater cameras along with you — the dolphins might pinch them and do themselves an injury, I was told. But if a non-swimming member of your party is an accomplished photographer with a telephoto lens, he or she may be able to get some great shots from the shore. The trainers will be more than happy to direct them to the best vantage points.
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