Off the deep end for a dip with the dolphins

Steven Knipp

WHILE Hongkongers risk arrest or attack by outraged animal rights activists for their recently revealed late night swims with Ocean Park's dolphins, swimming with these mammals is very much the done thing in Hawaii.

When Hyatt International built its US$360 million Waikoloa resort three years ago on 60 ocean-front acres on the island of Hawaii, they designed it as an adult fantasy wonderland complete with thundering water slides and a huge health spa.

But for many guests the resort's favourite is the simple school-boy joy of having the opportunity to meet and swim with six frisky, fun-loving dolphins.

The hotel's Dolphin Quest Programme is managed by veterinary specialists in the field of marine mammal science, and the educational aspect of the experience is stressed throughout the all-too-short 30-minute encounter.

Groups of four slightly nervous swimmers, together with a dolphin handler, slowly wade into the Waikoloa's specially designed salt water lagoon. At 25,000 square feet, with a white sand bottom six metres deep and sandy shore line, it's the largest and most natural man-made dolphin habitat in the world.

Ground rules are simple and easy to understand: don't pull on the dolphin's fins and, especially, do not touch the blow-holes on the top of their bodies, through which they breathe.

Each of the six dolphins is called in from the deep part of the lagoon, and eagerly races across the pool to surface next to the guests.

The 160-kilogram bullet-shaped bodies are almost solid muscle. But their skin is as soft and smooth as a greased water melon, rather like wet silk. It would be the envy of any mermaid.

Yet, what is most astounding of all, and probably what accounts for the ancient belief that they are closer to humans than any other creature, are their eyes. Large, brown, and incredibly luminous, they're alert to every movement, totally aware of your presence.

Unlike the dead, lifeless eyes of fish, dolphins look right into your own and this, together with that impossibly goofy grin, makes it easy to imagine that they know far more than they are saying.

Though their hearing is said to be 20 times better than humans, dolphins can only see one-tenth as good as we can. So perhaps that is why they always seem so eager to get as close to their human counterparts as possible.

They elicit a wonderfully charming myopic vulnerably, much like that of a pretty girl who has removed her glasses at a party.

Because of their high intelligence, dolphins easily grow bored in performing the same activities over and over. So members of each encounter group get to act as assistants in helping to train the dolphins in ever-newer and more complex activities.

After each exercise is completed, the human swimmers gingerly hand over special dolphin treats, slices of tuna or fresh squid. As each dolphin slowly swims up to his assigned human partner, he gently opens his mouth to receive the fishy reward.

Educational the experience most certainly is. But it is also fabulous fun to see these incredibly powerful yet painstakingly gentle creatures at first hand.

Even the savviest traveller or jaded jet-setter tends to wade out of the water babbling about the experience, with that silly, slightly sun-dazzled grin of farm-yard puppies.

For a thousand years, man has had an enduring admiration and affection for dolphins. The Greek and Romans so admired the air-breathing mammals that they displayed them on their coins.

And still today many marine biologists are convinced that the dolphin is a uniquely intelligent creature, pointing out that its brain is twice the size of a human's, with twice as many convolutions.

Hawaiian scientists placed TV monitors next to underwater windows where captive dolphins could see the image of their trainer giving commands.

Within a few seconds the dolphins carried out an entire series of commands correctly, something that chimpanzees need months of repeated viewing to pick up.

Scientists have also found that like humans, but unlike perhaps any other animals except monkeys, dolphins co-operate with each other to achieve specific goals such as driving away an aggressive shark or herding a school of fish into a cove for an easy below-water buffet.

That they are intelligent is unquestionable. But how alike are they to humans? The issue has been made murky by scores of highly romantic, and sometimes silly, Hollywood films and television series.

There is hard evidence though that dolphin mothers spend more than five years raising each calf and they can recognise each of their offspring throughout their lives. Some researchers go still further, however, claiming that dolphins can know anger and fear, as well as joy and affection.

Dozens of stories of dolphins having saved ship-wrecked sailors by pushing them gently ashore, have been part of dolphin mythology for centuries.

There has never been any actual documented cases of such an event actually happening. But try to convince one of the enchanted glassy-eyed participants of the Waikoloa's Dolphin Quest encounters that it is all probably a myth and you will be met with a marvellous ear-to-ear grin of someone who knows otherwise.

Costs for the 30 minute dolphin encounter are US$65 per person, in groups of four people. The hotel also offers a special ''Dolphin Doubles'' program for couples interested in sharing a 30 minute encounter for a slightly higher costs, as well as a special program for children aged from 5 to 12, accommodating up to 20 children a day for US$40 each.

Part of the fees earned from the Dolphin Quest Programme is donated to the Waikoloa Marine Life Fund.