Children Join Dolphins at Breakfast

Article excerpt

Watching a dolphin "walk" on water brought shrieks of delight from youngsters who recently shared breakfast with the dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

As the dolphins went through their paces, another of their favorite "tricks" seemed to be swimming to the edge of the pool, flipping their tails and splashing - much to the amusement of the children in the audience. Even trainer Jill Natwick was not immune to this display of dolphin playfulness. While retrieving several small fish that had become stuck on the pool's edge, Ms. Natwick was treated to a soaking by several dolphins. One almost senses they find this behavior quite amusing.

"They seek out attention for whatever reason," Ms. Natwick says. "It depends on how playful they are and how they are interacting with each other. There are definitely times when they get very interactive with people instead of with each other, and vice versa."

Breakfast With the Dolphins, a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their world, is offered monthly at the aquarium. Visitors are treated to a Continental breakfast and a display of dolphin tricks and training procedures. Reservations are required, and the event is limited to 100 participants.

The program gives youngsters an opportunity to interact with the dolphins and ask questions of a trainer following the show. In addition, participants can attend the regularly scheduled dolphin show immediately following the breakfast event at no extra charge. The aquarium offers dolphin shows several times daily.

Six dolphins - three females, Nani, Shiloh and Chesapeake, and three males, Cobie, Nalu and Shadow - perform in the show. They are Atlantic Coast bottlenose dolphins, which can be found from Florida to Canada. In the ocean, the mammals can swim at speeds ranging from 25 to 35 mph. They are socially and cognitively comparable to monkeys and apes.

Ms. Natwick says dolphins are very fast learners and have the ability to do complex tasks. The more complex the task, the longer it takes to train the dolphin. For example, flips and somersaults are complicated aerial behaviors and can take about four to six months to teach. So just how do you teach dolphins to do flips?

"We use a target pole with a ball on the end of it, and they are trained to follow that ball," Ms. Natwick says. "We move the buoy around in a circular motion, and that teaches them to do the somersault. We teach it underwater at first. Once they know the somersault motion, we bring it up above the water so that they learn to jump and flip at the same time."

Children are invited to play ball with the dolphins. A half-dozen youngsters are selected from the audience to throw small footballs and basketballs into the pool. A game soon begins as the dolphins catch the balls and throw them back to the children.

Eleven-year-old Nicole Asler was one of the children selected from the audience to help feed the dolphins, which consume 18 to 26 pounds of fish daily, depending on their size.

Nicole and her 6-year-old sister, Jessica, of Calvert County, love the dolphins and have been to see them before.

"I want to be a marine biologist and would love to work with dolphins," says Nicole, while sister Jessica chimes in she wants to also.

That's how Ms. Natwick got into the field. "I was in California at a marine park and saw a dolphin show and thought, `I'd like to do that.' I was either a freshman or sophomore in high school, so I started . . . to gear high school studies toward giving me a head start in college," she says.

To work in the field requires a bachelor's degree in a life science - biology, psychology or animal behavior - says Ms. Natwick, who majored in marine biology and minored in psychology.

"Most of what we do with the dolphins in training is behavioral psychology - it's conditioning and positive reinforcement - so I tried to cover both bases," she says. …