The Dolphin Specialty Course

by Rick Frehsee

With the simple but proper wave of her hand, student Nicole Gober prompts a dolphin to leave the water and slide up onto the swim platform. The huge dolphin, now dwarfing little Nicole, lifts his head and tail in a pose that looks very much like the bow ornament for Captain Nemos submarine. Nicoles smile lights up the entire swim arena at the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences; in addition to learning much about dolphins and their behavior, she has been privileged to realize a personal dream. Standing next to Nicole and the dolphin is George Kieffer, Nicoles mentor and instructor, who is also smiling, sharing in her dream. The dolphin is smiling, too, as dolphins always do.

The above scenario was kind of a finale to the hands-on water session which is a part of a new and well-constructed Dolphin Specialty Course now offered by the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences and Anthonys Key Resort. Recently I was given the opportunity to oversee a class in session; the realization of dreams is always a pleasant occupation for an observer. But there was much more than dreams that these students would be taking home with them. In addition to dolphin magic, this course also included a lot of pure satisfying knowledge of dolphin physiology and behavior. Getting to know dolphins in the real sense of the word is a common denominator of the Dolphin Specialty Course.

Our aim, in part, is to remove dolphin mythology and replace it with a real understanding of the real animal, George Kieffer told me. Myths about dolphins have been showcased and perpetuated by movies, television and popular books. Dolphin intelligence and some behaviors have habitually been compared with that of human children and pet dogs. But those are erroneous comparisons, farfetched at best. Dolphins are unique; they are neither humans in shiny gray suits or golden retrievers with fins. They are dolphins, wonderful beings all to their own. And the truth is just as exciting and interesting as all the myths.

These words were coming from someone who really knows not only the anatomy and physiology of dolphins, but their personality, behavior and intelligence as well. Admitting that Its impossible for humans to think like a dolphin, George has spent many years with dolphins and has learned to accept them on their own terms.

I looked at Nicole and George on the swim platform and noted the interesting juxtaposition between the two of them. Both were realizing a dream. Nicole Gober, a young lady in her early 20s, from New Orleans, was visiting Roatan with her family. Nicole had always wanted to be a dolphin trainer but a chronic ear infection prevented her from diving and from fully realizing her dream. The Dolphin Specialty Course, which she heard about on the island, gave her an opportunity she could previously only dream about;the experience of being physically and mentally close to a dolphin, which, judging from her smiles, laughter and enthusiasm, she would never forget.

In his early 30s, George Kieffer has been with dolphins his entire adult life. He began studying dolphins in 1983 while a student of marine biology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Since then he has been a full-time dolphin trainer and animal care specialist. He joined the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences in January 1992 as a member of the senior training staff.

George is part of an immediate and extended family at Anthonys Key and RIMS. His wife, Sonya, is a photographer/videographer for Photo Roatan, the resorts complete photo shop. The marine institutes senior training staff, which includes George Kieffer, Eldon Bolton (director of RIMS), Teri Bolton and Bruce Plunkett, have all worked together for many years. George, Eldon and Teri have been working with dolphins here in Roatan and previously in the States since 1986. Bruce joined them in 1987. George is quick to remind me that the entire senior staff has assisted in the curriculum and in the instruction of the Dolphin Specialty Course.

This is a natural extension of other educational courses we have been offering for some time, George told me. Adult guests and visitors would come by and see one of our college or university groups or our Kids Discovery Camp in the classroom or in-water and ask whats available for them. From the beginning, the Dolphin Specialty Course has been one of the marine institutes most popular educational offerings.

As I watched each phase of the course unfold, it was easy to see the fun and the professionalism in every part. To begin, the companion manual for the course, an in-house production, is a real printed book. Perfect bound (it has a spine) with excellent color photos and professional illustrations (illustrated by Steve Kieffer, Georges brother), it is perfectly coordinated to the course. Titled The Bottlenose Dolphin, A Comprehensive Profile, the manual covers the evolutionary history, the taxonomy, the anatomy and the important physiology such as respiration, circulation, reproduction, etc., in easy read language. The bulk of the material, which makes it special to the course, details the senses, such as vision, hearing and taste, echolocation, vocal communication, cognitive skills, body posturing, social dynamics, feeding strategies and techniques, and dolphin training as it has been recorded and supported by the direct observation of the RIMS senior staff members. Scuba divers visiting Anthonys Key Resort have had the opportunity to join the RIMS dolphins on daily excursions in the open seas for several years. As these dolphins are very accustomed to divers and their cameras, they are totally relaxed in their presence and thus often display behavior rarely seen elsewhere. Through many direct observations, RIMS has been able to record a variety of their foraging and feeding techniques as well as their complex social relationships and methods of communication.#

All of the photographs in the book feature this community of dolphins. No existing manual could be as direct as this course. The final section of the manual provides information on the conservation of dolphins: dolphin fisheries, habitat degradation and environmental protection. The manual concludes with a bibliography for suggested reading.

The Dolphin Specialty Course combines classroom lectures using slides, transparencies and video with hands-on in-water sessions at the institutes main complex. It is usually two days long (Tuesday and Thursday). Students begin with a Dolphin Interactive Anatomy Session in the water. The second meeting is a one and a half hour classroom session that introduces dolphins and prepares participants with anatomy, physiology and the senses of dolphins. The final session on Thursday might be called a graduation celebration for students experience a dolphin training session and initiate behaviors as a dolphin trainer. This is followed by a classroom presentation on Dolphin Cognition, Communication, Behavior and Conservation.

The total official time for the course is about four hours, but the course I was watching ran longer. Everyone wanted to stay later, even in the very interesting classroom sessions. It seemed everyone had more questions about dolphins and George obliged with the answers.#

Its hard to tell which part of the course is most appreciated but, of course, the biggest smiles and outbursts of pure glee occur with the training session. As George takes students through a range of learned dolphin behaviors, he has them learn the proper hand signals and/or body language the dolphins will acknowledge and respond to with a special behavior. Dolphins are then positively reinforced or rewarded by handfeeding. It was especially interesting to me and to the students that while food is the primary reinforcer, praise, petting and attention from the trainer are natural secondary reinforcers. The dolphins seem to love attention and, regardless of these behaviors and rewards, each one receives the same amount of food each day. Obviously, if dolphins dont feel like responding to a command, they dont have to.

Watching humans and dolphins interacting this way certainly suggests fun and both seem to be thoroughly enjoying the interplay. There was no doubt Nicole Gober enjoyed her session. George stood beside her and showed both dolphins and Nicole the proper signal. After the dolphins performed the requested behavior, it was Nicoles turn. Not yet totally sure of herself, she hesitated at first and then made the gesture. The dolphins immediately responded and returned directly to Nicole for their reward. In that first brief moment she bonded with the dolphins, an experience she thought would never move beyond her dreams. When the session was over, George, Nicole and I were smiling and laughing and of course the dolphins were smiling too.

For information or reservations for Anthony's Key Resort and the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences, contact:

Bahia Tours, Inc.

(800) 227-DIVE (3483)

(954) 929-0090 (954) 922-7478 (fax)