On the scraggly hills of east Shenzhen, Ionic columns stand looking over a pale blue sea. Guarding a road lined with European facades, a white plaster Neptune and his mermaid consorts glare in the morning sun. The scene that greets visitors on the approach to Sea World, the aquatic theme park in Xiaomeisha, is somewhat surreal. Within the park's walls, however, a fiercely down-to-earth project is bringing hope and joy to disabled children and their parents.
Surrounded by sculpted grounds, in a hive of linked cement bunkers, pools and cages through which sea lions waddle, is aquarium curator Zhou Yunxin's office. Zhou, in her mid 40s, is Sea World's senior engineer and exhibitions organiser, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the theme park. But her office is also the command centre for the park's Dolphin Swimming Partners and Blue Sea Environmental Protection Agency. The facilities are basic: cement floor, a hard wooden seat and two posters of marine life taped to otherwise bare walls. Zhou is athletic and tanned, with a swimmer's build and chlorine-orange hair.
Raised in Chongqing and schooled in Shanghai, her research in marine biology engendered in her a pressing need to protect the environment. After teaching at a university in Sichuan province, Zhou came to Sea World in 1997, hoping to awaken people to the wonders of the sea and the need to protect it. Working initially as an engineer, her job was unlikely to bring her into contact with the people she wanted to reach. But then a little girl touched her heart.
When the parents of paraplegic 'Kun Kun' first implored Zhou to develop dolphin-assisted therapy in 2000, she baulked. With neither funding nor training, all she had were a few dolphins she couldn't afford to lose. Unfazed, Kun Kun's parents brought their daughter to meet Zhou. 'When I came face to face with her, with their struggle, I couldn't refuse. I was so moved,' says Zhou. 'I was determined to start.'
Trained as a researcher and an engineer, Zhou had no experience with either therapy or children. 'We more or less taught ourselves,' she says matter-of-factly. 'We began liaising with some Taiwanese aquariums [that offered dolphin-assisted therapy] and trained for a year. We read and practised all we could. Then we admitted Kun Kun, our first guest.'
Dolphin Swimming Partners uses dolphin interaction to motivate disabled children to develop better speech and motor skills. This, in turn, fosters self-esteem and empowerment, instilling hope in the youngsters that they can reach beyond their disabilities. Now, five years later, more than 100 children have trained under the programme and it boasts a two-year waiting list. It's the only scheme of its kind in the world that doesn't charge for its services; the Sea World management have been supportive from the start and are pleased to be benefitting from the positive media attention the programme attracts.
In a makeshift changing room stands an 11-year-old boy, legs akimbo, chest thrust out, hips pinched back. Partially paralysed from the waist down, he wears black swimming trunks and white slip-on trainers. Struggling to lift his left leg, then his right, he crab walks across the cement floor. In perfect English he says, 'Hello, my name is Tommy Zhang. How do you do?'
Shivering beside him, pencil-thin eight-year-old 'Zhi Zhi' wraps himself in a towel while his mother inflates a bright yellow swimming vest. Dogged by autism, Zhi Zhi displays none of the excitement you would expect in a boy about to jump into a pool full of dolphins. In school, he couldn't pay attention, sit still or keep up with his lessons. Despite being transferred to a special school, he still speaks little. Uncertain where to turn, his mother read reports of dolphin therapy two years ago and immediately signed him up. This will be his first swim.
'Dolphins open the door to a child's heart,' says Zhou. 'One thing about autism is that kids are too nervous to talk. But when they see dolphins they feel happy. They forget they're nervous. They want to communicate, they open up.' The same goes for physical disabilities, she says. The children forget
their supposed limitations; each small victory cascades into a great wellspring of confidence that transforms their lives.
Tommy negotiates the first step down to a broad ledge, where children can wade but dolphins won't swim. Entering the water unassisted is part of a pact with his coach. One at a time, he lifts his legs with his hands, places them in the water and lowers himself down. The water ripples with light as a dolphin called Lai Sun carves neat circles and arcs, breaking the surface, blowing spray and diving back down. His brother, Lai Kan, waits at the back of the pool, his beak thrust into the air, clicking, as if calling the children to play.
As a first-timer, Zhi Zhi panics when he sees the water and tries to rip off his vest. As though sensing his fear, Lai Kan circles closer and closer. Every time the dolphin approaches, Zhi Zhi shouts with joy. Forgetting his fear, he is coaxed forwards by his coach.
Although dolphin-assisted therapy is gaining in popularity around the world, the expense involved precludes most potential beneficiaries from taking part. A single 40-minute session can cost more than US$600, not including travel expenses to the mostly warm-water locales. Yet, despite the fact there is a long queue, Sea World's programme is free - and many people are willing to wait. Moreover, parents from elsewhere on the mainland, Hong Kong and even overseas are willing to, at least temporarily, relocate to Shenzhen while their children undergo therapy.
There is another reason why people choose Zhou: her remarkable level of dedication. She and her staff are volunteers; they fulfil their regular work duties at the aquarium and conduct dolphin therapy during breaks. And even though they're not paid extra, their commitment to the children is long term. They hold regular sessions six days a week and keep Sundays open for graduates - those who have completed a month-long course, attending once a week. Tommy is one of them, returning monthly to maintain a vow he made to Zhou. 'Tommy built his confidence in these pools,' recalls Zhou. 'I said if he wanted to keep coming, he'd have to choose something, anything in his life, and be the best at it. He chose English.'
The fact the staff flatly refuse any money or gifts has thwarted those hoping to bypass the waiting list
and flustered those unsure how to give thanks. But the parents who have little cash to spare are deeply grateful for the team's integrity. According to Zhou, there's simply no other way the operation could be run. 'As soon as you start to expect money or gifts, you lose the ability to interact with these children with a pure heart. You cannot do this job without a pure heart.'
Zhou's resolve is infectious and there are now 12 trainers working with children in the programme. From May to September, they look after between 10 and 15 children a month. 'It's hard work. I had to convince them to do it at first,' Zhou says smiling. 'But now, they all want to. It's very rare in this life to get a chance to help people profoundly. We've helped a lot of people but they're helping us even more.' She wipes away a tear.
'The best part of this job,' Zhou says, 'is seeing the parents; their realisation that, 'If those people refuse to give up on my kids, how can I give up on them?' You touch their hearts. You help them find the courage to take it on.
'Most kids with disabilities just get cycled through hospitals,' she shakes her head. 'They meet doctors and nurses, they get their shots and meds, but do they really feel [cared for]? I just want to give these kids their happiest time and I think we're doing it.'
It's been a month since his last session and Tommy has lost the muscle control needed to kick. His upper body stays afloat and his strokes are smooth but his lower limbs sink. As if urging him on, Lai Sun begins to roll and sound, his iridescent belly streaking through the pool. Gaining speed, he stirs the water, seemingly instilling it with energy. Finally, the green soles of Tommy's shoes break the surface. Success.
Zhi Zhi frolics on the ledge then ventures into the deeper water with his instructor. Circling the pool,
the dolphins leap and sound, blasting spray. Tommy swims with them, stretching out his legs as he dives. In the adjoining pool other dolphins wait by the gate with beaks open, clicking into the air. Tommy and his instructor communicate underwater with signs. In an orange tank-top and white shorts, Zhou watches calmly from the deck.
Then something unexpected happens. Zhi Zhi realises the session is ending and starts screaming his refusal to leave. The trainer retreats to the ledge and calls for Zhi Zhi to follow but, instead, the boy pushes himself into the deep end. He's on his own, treading water, in his flotation vest. Meanwhile, Tommy has to push his entire body's dead weight out of the pool. He receives no help. All of a sudden the pool becomes a scene of intense drama. Tommy gasps as he heaves one limp leg onto the deck. Zhi Zhi, realising he cannot remain in the water forever, paddles back to the ledge. For one breathless moment, completely alone, each boy has overcome a great hurdle. It is, perhaps, this aspect of the training that is most valuable because of the boost in confidence it supplies.
Zhou, too, has benefited from seeing her students progress. The success of Sea World and Dolphin Swimming Partners has given her the confidence to pursue environmental goals. In July last year, through the Shenzhen Municipal Civic Affairs Commission and Sea World, she officially founded the Blue Sea Environmental Protection Agency. The organisation assists government research programmes, promotes environmental awareness at local schools and organises Shenzhen beach clean-ups.
With the Pearl River Delta's deteriorating natural environment drawing increasing attention, Zhou's expertise is being sought. This month, she presented a research paper on local marine life to Shenzhen's civic leaders. 'I told them that they look at things from land but I look from the sea. Our leaders are beginning to pay more attention to the sea. I'm glad we're finally being heard.'
To further develop the dolphin-therapy scheme, Zhou wants to improve her team's skills and widen their experience. 'We'd like to exchange more with overseas programmes, learn from them and help them understand us. Most importantly, we want to generate more interest in working with disabled people and draw more attention to their cause.'
As Zhou's mission expands she must consider how to secure funds. 'We are just ordinary people with common goals,' she says. 'We do face some economic difficulties. I'm working on developing sponsors, though we're definitely not looking for anything corporate or huge. We have to stay pure. The key for us is healthy, sustainable development.'
Zhou's assistance is being sought in other areas, too. At the urging of many local constituents, she is considering running for China's People's Congress.
'I never used to take interviews,' she says. 'I was never able to discuss our work without breaking down in tears. We've done all this at our own urging, from our own hearts.'