The problem with dolphins is that they’re so far away. If they’re not skipping through the Atlantic, they’re echolocating through the Pacific, so—pardon my projection—I never have the chance to reach down and give them the hugs they so desperately want from me.
Well, recently I finally hugged a dolphin. Actually, I hugged five: Bella, Lightning, Maverick, Duchess and Huff-n-Puff. In other words, I participated in Mirage’s “Trainer for a Day” program—I’ve got the official white-and-teal “Trainer for a Day” golf shirt and matching baseball cap to prove it.
The day began when my “facilitator” Lori (who used to train guide dogs) handed me a wet suit and directed me toward my private changing room. After five minutes of pulling and bending, I had the suit on. It didn’t have “Trainer for a Day” printed on it, so while the dolphins could differentiate between me and the legitimate trainers—dolphins’ brains weigh 1,600 grams—the tourists couldn’t. They followed me around the 1.5 million-gallon pool’s perimeter, snapping my picture and asking me questions. I did my best to offer pleasing answers:
“How much does a dolphin weigh?”
“Around 18,000 pounds.”
“What do they eat?”
“Mostly Wonder Bread. But when they jump through the fire hoop we give ’em a Twix bar or two.”
In truth, the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins at the Secret Garden weigh 400-500 pounds and eat 15-25 pounds of fish and squid per day. But maybe the trainers should feed them more; Bella, at one point, took a nibble on my foot. I’m sure she wasn’t actually trying to eat it, that she was just playing, but either way, it gave me quite a startle.
Aside from that instant, though, the dolphins and I got along—sorry in advance!—swimmingly. They swam by me again and again for petting (“Don’t pet the blowhole!”), they presented their bellies for rubbing, and they extended their beaks for kissing. My facilitator Lori documented our kisses with a digital camera (photos are included in the $550 “Trainer For a Day” package, along with the shirt, cap and a dolphin-approved lunch [Mini Crispy Crab Cakes, Coconut Fried Shrimp …]).
No, Bella and the gang didn’t actually jump through flaming hoops, but that’s because the dolphins at Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden aren’t here to entertain; they’re here to educate families about dolphins’ place in the ecosystem and to inspire children to study marine life. And that’s a worthwhile goal, considering most children only encounter dolphins though Christian Lassen paintings and Trapper Keepers.