The Dolphin Experience

This short story is based on an actual experience I had when I lived in Florida. I went to Key Largo to swim with dolphins (I did my research and picked a place that didn’t seem to be just making money off of them – the part about it being a research facility and the dolphins being able to swim out to the open ocean is true).

Most of the other facts in the story are also true, including me sucking in a lungful of sea water during a delighted gasp (hint – if you turn your head sideways while snorkeling, don’t breath in!). I gasped and hacked, and started back to the platform when one of the dolphins started swimming all over me – it was actually pretty scary and no, I didn’t have enough presence of mind to perform the corkscrew procedure.

I did make it back to the platform and did ask about the “handshake,” and yes, the dolphin was female. What I didn’t do was get back in the water, although the dolphin spent the rest of the time inviting me to come play (see photo). Honestly, it was a lot more intimidating that I had realized. And I am, basically (I think we’ve pretty much established this), as cowardly as a bunny in tharn.

 

THE DOLPHIN EXPERIENCE

Diane shifted impatiently in her seat and asked Marc for the tenth time, “How much farther is it?”

Marc just sighed and kept his eyes on the road. “Diane, I’m really glad you’re excited about this, but please, be patient! We’ve still got about an hour and a half before we get to the motel, and we won’t be swimming until ten tomorrow morning.”

Diane looked out the window and tried to calm down, but she couldn’t contain her excitement. “Marc, I can’t believe I’m going to swim with dolphins! This is the best birthday present I’ve ever had.” She was quiet for a moment, and then laughed and told him, “I loved them so much when I was a kid, I used to beg my mom to buy one for our swimming pool.”

Marc laughed too, and reached over to take Diane’s hand. “I wish I felt the way you did about it, but to tell you the truth the thought of swimming with dolphins makes me a little nervous.”

“Marc, you’re kidding. Why?”

“Well, it may sound silly, but I’m not too comfortable with the thought of being around such big animals. What if they get aggressive, or decide to attack us?”

Diane laughed. “They won’t attack us. They’re friendly, intelligent and playful. If a dolphin acted in a violent manner, I’m sure it would only be to protect itself. Or maybe to establish territory during courtship or something.”

“O.k., but what if they accidentally hold me under the water?” Marc looked quickly at Diane, but she didn’t laugh this time. She smiled and squeezed his hand.

“Honey, they know we need the air to breathe. Just like they do. In fact, dolphins have been known to save drowning people. They’re really remarkable.”

Marc still wasn’t convinced, and the next few miles passed in silence. Finally he asked, “How big are they?”

“I’m not sure exactly. These dolphins are bottlenoses, so I would guess about eight feet and maybe six hundred pounds.”

“Man! And you mean to tell me you’re not the least bit nervous about getting into the water with them?”

Diane thought about it for moment before answering. “No, not really. I’m a good swimmer, and I’ve never heard any stories about dolphins being dangerous. I think it’s going to be an incredible experience.”

Marc’s silence told Diane how uncomfortable he really was with the idea of their upcoming adventure. She knew he was worried about his ability in the water. The brochure they had received from The Dolphin Experience recommended that each participant be an excellent swimmer. Although Diane was quite confident of her abilities, Marc hadn’t had the advantage of growing up with a swimming pool in his backyard. He was worried that his swimming skills might not be adequate enough to keep him out of trouble.

Diane spent the next hour trying to reassure Marc. When that didn’t work she simply let her enthusiasm bubble over, hoping it would be contagious. Despite her efforts, by the time they pulled into the parking lot of their Key Largo motel he was still uneasy about the swim.

Diane chatted excitedly about the dolphins during dinner, but sensing that it only added to Marc’s tension, she tried to change the conversation to less threatening topics.

While they talked about the possibility of extending their trip so they could visit Key West, a young man and woman were seated at the table next to them, their baby in a highchair next to his mother. The little boy had a round, chubby face, big dark eyes and long curly eyelashes. Diane felt the inevitable tug at her heart that was equal parts pleasure and pain.

“Oh Marc, look at that baby. Isn’t he adorable?”

Marc looked over and smiled. “He sure is.” When he saw her expression go from one of joy to sadness, he reached over and took her hand. “Diane, I know it’s hard, but let’s not think about sad things right now. We’re here to celebrate your birthday. I know it’s been hard these last two year, but the doctor said there’s no reason not to be optimistic. When the time is right, it’ll happen.”

“I know.” Diane looked down and folded her hands in her lap. “I just wish the time was right – right now.” She looked up at Marc and could see the disappointment in his eyes. She felt guilty, realizing this was supposed to be her wonderful birthday trip. “I’m sorry I’m spoiling our lovely evening. I’m just going to concentrate on swimming with the dolphins. Unless you’d rather talk about something else?”

Marc said, “Oh no, of course not,” and reached for his water glass, his hand shaking in mock terror. Diane laughed. “My adventurous husband!”

That night as she lay in bed trying to sleep, Diane thought about what a wonderful man she had married. Ever since he had been transferred to Florida, Marc had been trying to find ways to help her adjust to their new home. When he had heard about a place in Key Largo — The Dolphin Experience — where you could pay to swim with dolphins, he immediately wrote to them for a brochure. She had been excited about the idea, but felt the cost was somewhat prohibitive. In order to override her objections, he had waited until her birthday and surprised her with two tickets.

The memory of opening her birthday card and finding the tickets inside made her smile into the darkness. So far, this trip had been wonderful. Until dinner. The memory of the adorable baby in the restaurant stubbornly refused to give her any peace, and her smile faded. She knew Marc wanted a baby as badly as she did, but never said anything because he didn’t want to hurt her.

She began tossing and turning in the strange bed and Marc stirred in his sleep. She didn’t want to wake him, although if he asked why she wasn’t sleeping she could claim she was too excited to sleep. She rolled over. If only she could get pregnant! But she knew the more she worried, and the higher her stress level, the less it was that things would happen. She rolled over again. This just wasn’t helping. She tried some deep breathing exercises to relax. The breathing, in addition to the long day in the car, finally took its toll and she drifted into an uneasy slumber.

In the morning, after Marc and Diane ate breakfast, they headed out to where the swim would take place. Marc slowed the car at a gravel lot by the side of the road and double-checked the address. He turned and drove slowly into the parking lot. Diane was the first to speak.

“Marc, this isn’t at all what I expected.”

“Me either.”

They parked in front of a small yard enclosed by a chain link fence. Through the fence they could see several small cement tanks filled with murky seawater. A fin occasionally broke the surface.

Marc held the gate open for Diane, and they walked over to the small booth that served as the check-in area. As Marc confirmed their reservations with the woman behind the counter; Diane walked over to the swimming tanks.

They seemed so small! And there was only a tiny floating platform in the middle of each tank. Although Diane was confident of her swimming abilities, it unnerved her a little that the tank had sheer concrete sides, far too tall to climb out of, or hold onto.

“Are you o.k.?”

Marc was looking at her, and she forced a smile. “Oh yes, this just wasn’t what I expected. But I’m sure it’s going to be wonderful.”

He smiled. “Yeah? Me too.” Diane raised an eyebrow at his sudden change of heart. “Anyway,” he continued, “you need to go over there and sign a release form. I’ve already signed mine, absolving The Dolphin Experience from all blame in case of any ‘unforeseeable circumstances’.”

Diane laughed. “I’m sure that did wonders for your frame of mind.”

She walked over to the booth and smiled at the woman. She read the consent form quickly, but paused when she reached the bottom. Frowning, she looked up.

“Why do I need to sign something stating I’m not pregnant?”

The woman answered without looking up from her paperwork. “Our insurance won’t cover us if a pregnant woman gets in the water.” When Diane didn’t respond the woman looked at her. “Why? You’re not, are you?”

“No.” Diane spoke softly, and signed the form. She walked over to where Marc was waiting for her.

“O.k.,” she said, “business all taken care of. We’re ready to swim.”

“Good. Well, the first order of business is a ninety minute lecture about the dolphins, how to swim with them, and what to expect. After that, we get a half hour in the water with them. Here.” He handed her a pair of swim fins, and a mask and snorkel.

They walked over to a group of picnic benches where a dozen or so people were already seated. Diane found an empty spot on a bench, and Marc sat next to her. A young blonde man walked over to the group, and dropped his clipboard and pencil on the table.

“Hi, my name’s Dave and I’m here to tell you a little about the dolphins before you actually get in and swim with them. Now I know you’re all pretty excited to be here, and want to jump right in the water, but there’s a few things you need to know first.”

Diane looked over at Marc. He was hunched over the table, and his unsmiling gaze was fixed on the their young lecturer. Diane hoped whatever Dave had to say would make Marc as eager to get into the water as she was.

“The first thing we want you to know,” Dave said, looking around at all the faces, “is that the dolphins are not here to swim with you. They’re here for us to study. Those tanks of water are twelve feet deep, and there’s a small passage at the bottom of each one. If a dolphin decides not to swim with you, it’ll swim into the adjoining tank. And if they really don’t feel like hanging around the far tank has a tunnel that goes out into the open ocean. He paused a moment and looked around, “They’re not captive here, and they don’t do tricks.”

Marc leaned over and whispered, “There may be hope.” Diane rolled her eyes and whispered back, “I’m glad they’re not forced to swim with us and can head out to the ocean if they want.” She paused, “But I hope they don’t!” She smiled.

“The next thing you should be aware of,” Dave continued, “is that the dolphins view you as toys. So if you’re interesting and fun, they’ll want to spend time playing with you. If you’re not, chances are they won’t interact with you at all.”

Diane’s attention began to wander, and she found herself looking at the other members of the group. There were an equal mix of women and men, mostly young, and one older woman. The older woman looked over at Diane and smiled happily. Diane smiled back.

“There are a few games the dolphins will play with you.” Here Dave grinned. “They basically consist of the dolphins trying to scare you with their teeth.”

Marc looked at Diane, his face serious, and his eyes wide. Diane took his hand and smiled while Dave continued his lecture.

“They won’t bite you, but they may come up to your face and open up their mouths to show you all those sharp teeth. They’ve done this before, and they know it gets a reaction. You get scared, and they swim off chuckling.”

A few of the group laughed, including Diane. Marc leaned over and whispered, “I don’t see what’s so funny.”

Dave waited a moment before continuing. “They also may try to taste you. I know it sounds odd, but you won’t even know they’re doing it. They’ll just run their mouths up and down one of your legs.”

A few people in the group exchanged glances. Some of them began to look uneasy, particularly Marc. However, at Dave’s next comment Marc visibly relaxed. “Really, you don’t need to worry, because chances are the dolphins won’t come near you. More often than not they decide they don’t feel like playing. So don’t be too disappointed if you don’t have a close encounter today.”

Diane wasn’t disappointed. She was determined to interact with the dolphins. She hadn’t come all the way here just to swim around in a tank by herself! The older woman must have felt the same way, because she blurted out, “Well, what can I do to make sure they want to play with me?”

Dave nodded. “That’s a good question. First of all, you need to look like a dolphin. The best way to swim is with your hands locked behind your back. They don’t like it when they see your arms moving. It frightens them. So does treading and splashing. And once you’ve frightened them, they probably won’t come near you.”

Marc finally asked the question that had been on his mind. “What if they accidentally hold us under the water?”

Dave turned to him. “They won’t do that. They may try to keep you from getting out of the water if they’re having a good time with you. They’ll block your progress to the platform. In that case, you need to swim in a corkscrew fashion. Do one freehand stroke with your right arm, turn in the water and do a backstroke with your left.”

Marc still didn’t look very happy, but Dave continued talking. “In each tank are two dolphins, usually a male and a female. When you first get in the water, they’ll know all about you. Using their echolocation system they can monitor your heart rate, your blood pressure, and the condition of all your internal organs. It’s like seeing an x-ray of you.”

Diane looked wonderingly at Marc. “That’s amazing.”

“They’ll also know if you’re male or female. Their echolocation can detect the presence or absence of a womb.”

Even Marc was finally beginning to look impressed as Dave picked up his clipboard and pencil.

“The last thing I’ll tell you before I answer any final questions is that dolphins are also amazing because of their mating habits. Basically they have no mating season. Like human beings, dolphins mate whenever they feel the urge. To them, it’s a gesture of friendship. So if a male dolphin feels friendly toward you, he may show an attraction for your knees.”

While everyone else laughed, Diane raised her hand. “Is this an aggressive sort of attraction?” She didn’t want to sound silly, but she knew animals could become very aggressive when their sexual drive was involved. She didn’t want to get in the way of a male dolphin who was headed for his mate.

“Oh no,” Dave said, “it’s a very social behavior for them. Basically it’s just their way of shaking hands. The reason they go for your knees is because if you were a dolphin, and your feet were your tail, your knees would be reproductive organs. But really, it’s nothing to worry about. They’re not aggressive.”

After that Dave answered a few more questions, then broke the large group into smaller groups of three. The older woman was matched up with Diane and Marc. As they walked toward their assigned tank, the older woman turned to them. “Hi, my name is Grace. Aren’t you just thrilled to be here? This is like a dream come true for me!”

Diane smiled at her enthusiasm. “It is for me, too. I really hope the dolphins like us, and want to play with us.”

The trio reached their tank and a worker pulled on a rope attached to the platform in the middle of the water, bringing it within reach of where they were standing. Holding their snorkeling equipment, Diane, Marc and Grace stepped down onto the platform, which bobbed and shifted with their weight.

Diane donned her fins, mask and snorkel and looked at Marc. “Here I go!” When she finally eased herself into the water, she felt a thrill of excitement.

Locking her hands behind her back, Diane headed out into the middle of the tank. The water was very murky, and it was a little spooky not being able to see more than a few feet in front of her. She felt something brush her shins, and for a moment felt a tremor of fear. She took a deep breath through her snorkel and reassured herself — after all, there were only dolphins in the tank. She felt a presence at her side, and turned her head to look to the right.

A happy aquatic face was beaming at her. Diane was awestruck, and gasped in delight. Unfortunately, because her head was turned her snorkel had dipped into the tank and she sucked in a lung full of salt water instead of air.

Hacking and treading, Diane’s head broke the surface of the water. “Drat!” She was sure the dolphins would be scared away by her noise and clumsy treading. She decided to head back to the platform and recover her composure.

As she began to swim back she suddenly saw the dolphin directly in front of her. She stopped short and began treading, wondering if it wanted to play. The large animal floated patiently in front of her without moving. My gosh, she thought, they are big! As she tried to swim forward, the dolphin deliberately blocked her progress. Diane was afraid for a moment. Why was this dolphin trying to keep her from getting out of the water?

Diane began coughing again, and realized she needed to get back to the platform. She was getting tired. She tried swimming forward, but again the dolphin blocked her progress. It obviously wasn’t trying to play with her. She suddenly sympathized with Marc’s fears, and wondered if this dolphin was going to become aggressive. Remembering Dave’s lecture, she swam arm over arm, alternating a freestyle stroke with a backstroke in a corkscrew fashion until she reached the platform.

The workers at the center were all gathered around the sides of the tank, talking excitedly. As Diane pulled herself onto the platform, Dave came over to the edge nearest where Diane was sitting and asked, “Could you please get back in the water?”

Diane looked up at him, puzzled. “Well, to tell you the truth, that dolphin kind of makes me nervous. It didn’t seem to want to play, but it wasn’t letting me out of the water either. Was it trying to, you know, shake hands?” Diane blushed as she asked, but forced herself to look Dave in the eye.

He didn’t laugh. In fact, he looked very serious. “No, that’s Sandy, the female dolphin. Please, could you just get back in the water? You don’t have to swim or anything, just float around.”

The dolphin that had been swimming with Diane rose halfway out of the water in front of her, almost as if beckoning her back in. Grace swam over and said, “Look, you’re getting a formal invitation. Come on back in.”

Marc, who had been floating around near the platform, wasn’t happy at all. “I don’t know, that thing tried to keep my wife from getting out of the water. It doesn’t seem safe for her to get back in.”

Dave sighed and turned to Marc. “I promise you, nothing will happen. We’ll monitor the situation very carefully. It’s just that this is a very unusual behavior, and we’d like the opportunity to study it.”

Diane looked at Marc, then at Dave. The dolphin rose out of the water again, and when Diane reached forward to touch her nose, Sandy rose up and bumped Diane’s hand. Diane looked over at Grace, who was in the water playing with the male dolphin. The older woman was having the time of her life. Well, Diane thought, I’ve got my breath back, and this is the chance of a lifetime. I’m not going to spend it sitting here on this platform.

She smiled at Marc. “Go on now, keep swimming. They don’t seem to want to play with you anyway.” He looked at her for a moment, then stuck his head in the water and began floating.

Diane slid gently into the water, and placed her head down so she could breathe easily through her snorkel. She didn’t swim or tread, she just floated. She was aware that the dolphin was right beside her, and when it nudged her it was so gentle she just moved slightly in the water.

Diane propelled herself forward a little, in the direction the dolphin seemed to want her to go. Finally, she was in a corner of the tank floating on her stomach and breathing through her snorkel, and the dolphin simply hovered near her. At one point Grace tried to swim over, but the dolphin gently kept Grace away from the corner. The male dolphin didn’t even attempt to come close, and Marc stayed where he was, apparently happy the dolphins were keeping their distance.

Diane tried to swim out of the corner a few times, but Sandy gently herded her back in. Diane reached out to stroke the smooth skin that covered the wall of solid muscle. It felt like a wet inner tube.

As Diane floated on the water, Sandy turned and looked directly into Diane’s eyes with one of hers. She made small clicking and whistling noises, and Diane desperately wished she knew what the dolphin was saying to her. She made some strange noises through her snorkel, and hoped the dolphin knew she wanted to be friends. She was still a little nervous, but tried to relax and keep her breathing normal, so the dolphin wouldn’t detect any rise in her heartbeat or breath rate.

Just as she was beginning to feel a connection with Sandy, and completely comfortable with her, she could hear someone calling her name. She pulled her head out of the water and began treading. It was Dave.

“Your half hour is up, it’s time to come out now. I need to talk to you.”

Again, Sandy didn’t want Diane to leave the water, so she had to corkscrew to get back to the platform. As she was drying herself off she looked down into the tank. Sandy had raised her head out of the water, and was looking directly at Diane. The dolphin made a few clicking noises, and seemed to nod her head.

“Bye Sandy.” Diane had a strange feeling that the dolphin was trying to tell her something very important, and Diane just couldn’t understand what it was. She looked at Sandy for a long moment, then joined Marc and Dave by the benches.

Dave was obviously excited. “We really should be mad at you, but that was great! We’ve never had a chance to see that behavior before.” He looked down at the notes on his clipboard. “And we monitored you so closely, there couldn’t have been a problem.” He looked up again and waved the piece of paper he was holding. “And you did sign the consent form stating you weren’t pregnant.”

At this point Diane interrupted. “Pregnant? But I’m not pregnant.” She looked at Marc who shrugged and said, “I know. I tried to tell them.”

Dave looked from Marc to Diane, and then spoke directly to her. “Are you sure you couldn’t possibly be pregnant?”

Diane was hurt by the remark, but replied calmly, “Of course I’m sure. Believe me, if I were pregnant, I’d know it. There is just no way I’m pregnant.”

Dave didn’t look convinced. “Well, Sandy sure thinks you’re pregnant. She was acting as your midwife. That’s why she separated you from the others. The females do that for each other. One dolphin stays with the pregnant female and takes care of her for the entire pregnancy, and then helps with the birth.”

Diane was dumbfounded. “Well, I’m sorry, I don’t know what she thought, but I’m definitely not pregnant.” She could hear the edge in her voice, and felt herself starting to fight back tears. She took a deep breath and reminded herself this wasn’t Dave’s fault, and they said they hadn’t seen this behavior before, so it was just some kind of mix-up.

They spent a few more minutes talking with Dave, and then she and Marc gathered up their belongings and got back in the car. Diane told Marc she didn’t feel like seeing Key West, and just wanted to go home. Although she was sure Marc knew how upset she was over Dave’s insistence that she was pregnant, she tried several times to reassure him that she was happy they had come, and that she had loved swimming with Sandy but was just tired and wanted to see Key West another time. Inside, she was wondering how an experience could be so wonderful and so miserable all at the same time.

Although it should have been a happy memory they discussed for weeks, after they returned home Diane and Marc spoke very little about the swim. Diane just couldn’t shake off the blue mood that had enveloped her after leaving Key Largo, and Marc just talked about future trips to other areas of Florida.

As the weeks went by, Diane’s lethargy continued. Eager to lift her spirits Marc began surprising her with little presents, making her feel all the guiltier for her inability to regain her usual bubbly mood. He also tried to take her out for dinner at new and interesting places, which she refused. Because he was so worried about her she tried desperately to be happy, but she just felt worn out.

Finally, she called Marc at work late one afternoon and suggested they go out for dinner.

“Why?” Marc sounded surprised, and Diane knew it was because she hadn’t wanted to go out for weeks.

“Oh nothing special.” Her tone was light. “Just hurry home.”

“O.k., I’m on my way.”

When Marc walked through the front door, Diane was on the phone. He heard her say, “Yes, yes, I know, I couldn’t believe it either. I just thought you’d like to know. Thank you; me too. O.k., bye.”

She hung up and walked into the living room where Marc was setting down his briefcase and danced around him. “Hi honey, I’m so happy you’re home.”

Marc looked bewildered at the sudden change in her personality, but he only asked, “Who were you talking to on the phone?”

“Dave.” Diane giggled.

“Dave?” Marc looked even more bewildered. Then suddenly recognition lit his face. “Dave from the dolphin place? Why were you talking to him?”

“I wanted to tell him. . .” Diane paused, looking at Marc with shining eyes. She giggled. “I wanted to tell him, Sandy was right.” She laughed out loud.

Marc looked blank for a moment, and then his eyes opened wide. “The dolphin? You mean the one that. . . you mean you. . .” When she nodded, he let out a whoop and lifted her off her feet, spinning her around. When he set her down she was laughing breathlessly.

“Can you believe it? I was only two weeks pregnant and that dolphin knew.” Diane looked at Marc and smiled. “I knew she was trying to tell me something, I just didn’t know what it was!” She lifted her chin and asked Marc, “So what do you think of the dolphins now?”

Marc just shook his head in wonder. “I think they’re amazing.” He gave her a big hug. “I think you’re amazing. And you know what else I think?”

“No, what?”

“I think we should name this baby after the lovely lady who tried to tell us it was on the way.”

“Marc! What a wonderful idea! Boy or girl, we’ll call the baby Sandy.”

2 thoughts on “The Dolphin Experience”

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