As I write these words, the newspaper carries a short piece about
a 14-year-old Italian boy saved from drowning in the Gulf of Manfredonia
by a dolphin. The lad, a non-swimmer, fell off a sailboat and was sinking under the waves when he felt something pushing him upward. “When I realized it was Filippo, I hung on to him,” the boy was quoted as saying. One can only assume that Filippo is Italian for Flipper!
This is only the latest example of a tale that has been told since antiquity. The frescoes of the ancient Minoan civilization of Crete are alive with playful dolphins, and Greek literature is peppered with accounts of dolphins saving wrecked sailors. So humankind’s fascination with this playful and occasionally lifesaving creature has a long and honorable pedigree. And as the story about the boy from Manfredonia illustrates, Flipper, the hit TV show about a preternaturally precocious dolphin and his towheaded sidekick, clearly has a hold on the world’s imagination long after its original primetime run.
The marketing geniuses at SeaWorld were not blind to this intense fascination with the stars of their animal shows and some years ago instituted the Dolphin Interaction Program (now discontinued) that allowed a small number of guests to duck backstage at SeaWorld and actually meet and swim with the stars of the show. Out of this somewhat makeshift idea, SeaWorld has created Discovery Cove, a whole new class of theme park, the first one to be designed specifically for one-to-one human-animal interactions. At Discovery Cove you can not only swim with dolphins but cruise with stingrays, have tropical fish nibble at your fingers, and let exotic birds perch on your head and shoulders while you feed them by hand.
Because of its unique mission, Discovery Cove has been carefully designed to accommodate a limited number of visitors. Only 1,000 people can come to Discovery Cove each day and only 750 of them will be able to swim with the dolphins. Consequently, reservations are mandatory, whether you will be swimming with the dolphins or not. Discovery Cove will admit walk-ups for its “non-swim” program (i.e. you don’t get to interact with the dolphins) if there is room. That is a very iffy proposition during the warmer months, but your odds of getting in on short notice improve dramatically in the winter.
This limited-capacity policy is, first and foremost, for the protection of the animals, but it has undeniable benefits for the human visitor. The park clearly has room for more than a thousand, so there is plenty of space to spread out on the expansive beaches. No scrambling for lounge chairs, no shoulder-to-shoulder sunbathing and only the very occasional traffic jam at prime snorkeling spots.
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