Thursday, April 9, 2015

Gypsi's back flop

Gypsi, with trainer Loriel, works on her back flip behavior.

For the past 30 years, Dolphin Research Center has been dedicated to teaching, learning and caring about marine mammals. As a family, the education process is mutual and the dolphins teach us something new every single day. This certainly rang true when Kelly Jayne began training a back flip to our resident Flipper granddaughter, Gypsi. While Kelly Jayne has an excellent relationship with Gypsi and the two of them work together often, teaching the young dolphin her back flip is an example of the importance that communication plays when working with marine mammals. 

Trainers use a device called a target pole to act as an extension of the arm. The dolphins touch the buoy on the end of it and understand that in order to complete a behavior, they need to follow the pattern of the target pole. With an aerial behavior, like a flip, the trainers first introduce the action to the dolphins in water. Kelly Jayne moved the target pole under the surface to shape a flip and a half which leads  to the dolphins re-entering  the water head first for the completed behavior. Gypsi followed. Every time the athletic little girl completed the turn and a half, Kelly Jayne blew her whistle to let Gypsi know she’d correctly completed the behavior. Slowly, they began working higher up out of the water and Gypsi understood that the completed behavior was a high energy aerial.

The most difficult part of the training was getting Gypsi to then do a flip and smack the target pole with her tail so she understood that she needed to get her entire body out of the water and rotate. How Kelly Jayne worked on this part of the behavior was to blow her whistle every time Gypsi’s tail touched the buoy in the air. By blowing the whistle at that point, Gypsi learned that she had completed the behavior whenever her tail hit the target pole and was bridged for it.  

What the trainer didn’t account for was the need to teach Gypsi to re-enter the water in a graceful manner – rostrum first Instead, Gypsi inadvertently learned to get her entire body in the air for the flip, but then she crashes back into the water  with a belly flop. While not the behavior Kelly Jayne had in mind, she can’t fault her for learning exactly what she was being taught. 

This is a great example that we like to share with our guests about the importance of continuing to learn about interspecies communication and the way a dolphin’s mind works. In the past 50 years, those who care for marine mammals have learned a lot about them but there is still so much more to continue investigating. This exercise with Gypsi, which provides her with both mental and physical stimulation, is also a learning experience for the trainers that enables us to think about how to continually communicate with our dolphin family in a manner that sets them up for success.