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19 April 2014 Last updated
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Fun at Dubai Dolphinarium

Dolphins are friendly, playful and intelligent. Actually these creatures can perform tasks like balancing the ball on their nose while half of their brain is sleeping.

By Gordon Torbet, freelance writer
3 Oct 2008 | 12:13 am
  • Dolphins in one of their wonderful acts

    Source: Asghar Khan/ANM Image 1 of 3
  • Kateryna Strashchenko, dolphin trainer at the Dubai Dolphinarium.

    Source: Asghar Khan/ANM Image 2 of 3
  • Though these dolphins live in water, they do not drink any directly.

    Source: Asghar Khan/ANM Image 3 of 3

How would you like to be able to function normally while shutting down half your brain so it can rest, and then swap over so the other hemisphere gets some sleep? Well, that's what dolphins do sometimes, and it's just one of the amazing facts you'll learn about these mythically beautiful creatures if you visit the Dubai Dolphinarium.

Even before the Dh33 million aquarium opened in Creek Park in May this year, Dubai Municipality was already receiving criticism and condemnation from animal rights organisations and protesters.

Not so much about the facility itself, but the source of its three guest Black Sea bottlenose dolphins – Senya, Ksyusha and Marfa – one of which it was claimed was not born in captivity but rescued from fishermen's nets, having nearly died and therefore should have been re-released.

However, Christopher Richardson, Dubai Dolphinarium's managing director, is adamant: "These are third generation dolphins who were born in artificial conditions and don't know what it's like to be in the wild," he says. All three dolphins are perfectly happy in their current environment and role, and are healthier all year round than their wild counterparts. One clear indicator of their welfare, specialists say, is the fact that they perform in the shows – apparently, unhappy dolphins let you know they are unhappy.

With the controversy over, what benefits do facilities like Dubai Dolphinarium offer us and our waterbound mammalian friends?

While many see them as great places to take the kids on a weekend, others view them as vital tools in the process of educating people about the sorry state of our oceans and, on the wider scale, humanity's abuse of the planet.

A repeated viewpoint of many psychologists is that as a species, humans need to create emotional bonds with others before they can feel empathy for them, and empathy can only come from exposure and contact. In our busy lives we often neglect what lies outside the four walls of our homes and offices.

So facilities like aquaria and zoos are opportunities for us to reawaken our childlike curiosity in the diversity of species with whom we share the planet. Whether they are the best or the only solution is open to debate, but with ecological issues dominating the news and research worldwide, we need to use whatever tools we have at hand, and Dubai Dolphinarium is keen to be at the forefront of the drive for this awareness.

Education

Michelle Moodley is one of Dubai Dolphinarium's educators. Having been in the city for just six weeks, she had to find her feet pretty quickly to help head the facility's first summer camp for children. But she brings with her the experience of having worked for three- and-a-half years at the Durban Sea World aquarium, one of the most reputable global marine-life education and entertainment organisations.

Friday: Can you tell a bit about the relationship between the Dolphinarium and the education programme?

Michelle Moodley: As one of the educators my purpose is to inform and create an awareness about the marine environment through the education programmes. In our centre I am the marine educator so I provide presentations and programmes for the kids about marine life.

Then we also have an educator who shares with the kids some exciting art activities. And we have a gym classroom. So we can offer three activities to keep the kids well-informed and entertained in a fun, creative and enjoyable atmosphere.

And you had a summer school as well?

We ran our first month-long Dolphin Summer Camp in August. Each day between 9am and 2pm we had a lot of kids between the ages of 4 and 12 coming in. We've had positive feedback from all those who attended.

What kind of activities do you plan to make the programmes enjoyable?

I do education presentations where I encourage active participation from the kids, such as a general group discussion. It's important for me to gain an insight into what the kids already know: whether they recognise animals from the marine environment and what they know about them, and I build on that.

I also use specimens to show kids actual examples of body structure and body adaptations marine animals may have. I also like to introduce a game element by dividing the kids into two teams and getting them to compete. This enables them to take in new concepts easily and competition brings out the best in everyone because it encourages them to think on their feet and be more spontaneous.

You also mentioned earlier art classes and a gym class?

Yes. In the art classes there is a variety of activities. It ranges from creative drawing to stencil dabbing to T-shirt printing. The kids are often quiet in the art class because they are focused. It's a very tactile experience. Then there's the gym classroom which I've realised brings a good dynamic into our programme. The kids often come to us full of energy and by having the gym we can do games, team-building activities and challenges.

And it also gives them the opportunity to use their motor coordination skills. We also have a little session where we can do a complete turnaround and decrease the level of energy with storytelling.

What capacity can you deal with and how long are the sessions?

We usually take 20 kids in each classroom. The classes run between 35 and 45 minutes. You can hold their attention for about 20 minutes and then get them to do a different activity to keep them interested.

Do you specialise in any specific aspect of marine life?

It suits me to know more about all aspects of the marine life rather than to specialise. Here in Dubai, I would like to familiarise myself with the research programmes that are environment-based, especially marine research. I would like to be able to advise the kids on the possible career options available to them in this area.

The show

Still in their twenties, Tommy Wilken and Traill Stocker are the public face and voice of the Dolphinarium shows. Between them they have around 20 years experience, not just as show presenters but, more importantly, as animal trainers at Durban's Sea World where they trained a range of birds and mammals for various purposes.

South Africa's conservation industry is expanding rapidly and these two young men are a product of the growing environmental and ecological awareness. The knowledge they bring to the Dubai Dolphinarium is extensive and valuable to the facility and visitors alike. But how do they see the influence of such an attraction affecting people's attitudes in a city like Dubai?

Did you come here together?

Traill Stocker: No, Tommy was here first.

Tommy Wilken: Originally I worked at the Atlantis as a trainer and joined the Dubai Dolphinarium 10 months ago.

So you're a trainer as well?

TW: Yes, but not with these dolphins. We will have some more dolphins coming in future and then I'll train them.

Do you train as well, Traill?

TS: Yes, but my background is training birds and small mammals. Dolphins are on the same wavelength although they're a different species.

How do you train a small mammal and what sort of things?

TS: I've worked with 75 species of birds and they are incredible. I've worked with racoons, jackals, caracals, capuchins, pumas and tamarins.

Was it for shows or TV?

TS: It was a bit of everything – a lot of behaviour training: medical behaviours for live animal exhibits so that the vets could check them over, as well as show behaviours. It's very different when you train an animal for exhibit or for one-on-one.

Is it the same to train a dolphin as a jackal?

TS: The training methods are universal. It's irrelevant whether you're training a dog, a donkey or a cat, it doesn't matter. There are certain things which differ from species to species so you have to adapt.

But just the intellectual level with training dolphins must make a difference?

TW: They are much more adaptive. They are quicker to grasp the concept of learning. When you train, the first thing you have to establish with the animal that it is a process of learning.

If they don't understand that, it's pointless. And the way you train them is by laying down the foundation control behaviours – the medical behaviours such as the blood draw, the urine samples – which are the small steps that lead us to train them to do the big jumps that you see in the show. And it's important that we offer them stability.

It's like humans: learning doesn't just start at school when you're six years old. You've got to go through various steps in order to get to that point. Dolphins are exactly the same.

How do you start to train a dolphin to balance a ball on the end of its nose, for example?

TW: First, the dolphin must understand what the whistle means and when it will receive a fish. You then train the dolphin to touch your hand – the 'target'. Then gradually introduce the ball to the dolphin and once it gets used to the ball replace the hand with the ball and the dolphin knows that the ball is now the target. This takes about a week depending on each dolphin. Some are quick to learn while others are slow. Some like attention, others don't.

Is their brain similar to ours with an artistic/emotional, and a logical hemisphere?

TW: Yes. Their brain structure is identical to ours and it's larger too.

TS: Killer whales have a brain that is five times the size of ours, but just because they have a bigger brain doesn't mean they're smarter.

What is a dolphin's appetite like and what do they eat?

TW: They eat six per cent of their body weight each day – around 12-15 kg. It's a mixed variety of what's available, including chopped barracuda, horse mackerel which is rich in oils and fats, ribbon fish and pilchards.

Can you tell when a dolphin is sleeping?

TW: You can sometimes, if they're sleeping at the bottom in captivity. They can't do that at sea because there are sharks and predators, and it's too deep.

They can stay up to 20 minutes but usually it's a maximum of 4 or 5 minutes. Sometimes you can see both their eyes closed. Sometimes it's just one: they can shut down one hemisphere of the brain at a time because they always have to be on the alert for predators, so they're used to it. They're conscious breathers – they have to remember to breathe. They can even do a show while one half of their brain is sleeping.

What is their lifespan?

TW: Fifty is about the maximum.

How long does it take to become a trainer?

TW: It's an ongoing process.
TS: It's a lifelong thing depending on the animals. You never stop learning.
TW: The first thing you have to know is the natural history of the animal: how they lose heat, how they feed etc., so you can use these in your favour.

Is there any qualification?

TW: A degree in human psychology. Marine biology is less important: it's more for the study of populations and so on. And then there's ethology [the study of animal behaviour]. But the best way to learn is through trial and error.

TS: Training is an art. There's no programme that will teach you how to train a dolphin. It's an individual thing.
TW: Methods can be different provided you use the guidelines: positive reinforcement, no punishment, that sort of thing. But if an animal does something wrong then it's the trainer's fault.

I assume there is no limit to the number of 'tricks' for want of a better word?

TS: 'Behaviours'.
TW: I think there are around 250 commands that a dolphin can understand. Dolphins can also be taught to understand sentences of eight or nine words, such as "go and fetch the pink ball" – maybe not 'pink' as they don't see in colour, but you get the idea. Their communication systems are way more complex than ours. They use their sound to 'see', they can navigate with it and kill their prey as well.

There is a suggestion that dolphins can be more lethal than sharks because of their intelligence. Is this true?

TW: No. I've worked with and been attacked by dolphins and it's not true. They are big wild animals and like any animal you have to remember that there is a risk involved.

They get frustrated if they get a behaviour wrong and sometimes they do become aggressive. We look out for the signs called 'precursors' and they're very important to study. There are certain noises they make, certain head gestures, jaw popping, tail slapping and flicking water. A dolphin will always give you a warning before attacking you. As a trainer, once a dolphin bites you it can be five years down the drain in terms of the trainer-dolphin relationship.

Are they generally tactile?

TW: Yes. They are always swimming together and touching each other. They are social animals and have a complex hierarchical social system. You hardly ever see a dolphin swimming by itself.

Is there any part of a dolphin you shouldn't touch?

TW: Yes. The blowhole and around the mouth and eyes. If they are beached then be careful not to step on their pectorals because the bone structure is very similar to our hands.

By Gordon Torbet, freelance writer

By Gordon Torbet, freelance writer