Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Belly Flop!

One of the most enjoyable activities for guests to watch at Dolphin Research Center is an enrichment session. Sometimes trainers go out in inflatable boats, floating chairs, or water noodles to get up close and personal with the dolphins. Other times they’ll stay on the dock and bring out some toys for the dolphins to play with. These sessions allow the trainers to get closer to each dolphin and also learn about their behavior. It is a way for our dolphins to enjoy their free time where they can do whatever they want. Like any of our sessions, the dolphin can choose whether or not to participate in enrichment. We get really excited when dolphins who don’t regularly participate get in on the fun. Molly, our oldest dolphin, doesn’t always want to play or interact during enrichment and that’s okay because it’s her time to enjoy herself too. Every once in a while, she’ll decide to join in and pops up alongside the babies in her lagoon to play too. Whenever she does, we are thrilled to have her as a part of playtime.
Guests often wonder why Tursi screams when she flies through the air, or why Merina goes clockwise when she does a dorsal pull while Santini goes counterclockwise. Dolphins have their own dolphinalities, and through our enrichment we allow the dolphins to showcase their individuality. These sessions allow the dolphins to put together behaviors that they’ve thought about doing but haven’t been asked to do before. It ignites their creativity and shows us just what these fantastic creatures are capable of.

One of the most popular behaviors produced during enrichment was created by Sandy, one of our big boys. Sandy knew how to jump, giggle, shake his head, and breach, but had never been asked to do all four together. One day during enrichment, his trainer asked what he wanted to do. Sandy jumped into the air, made a honking sound while shaking his head at the same time, and then made a giant splash as he breached onto his belly. It was something no other dolphin had done before!  The trainers captured the behavior by rewarding Sandy heavily and showing interest in him doing it again. After he repeated the combination of actions several times, the trainers were able to assign a signal and ask for Sandy to do the behavior on cue. Now whenever Sandy sees a trainer holding his stomach, he knows they’re asking for his belly flop.