Dolphins Meet Dharma

By Michael Lawrence

Dolphins Meet Dharma

What do you get when you put a vivacious, intuitive young woman in touch with two playful, curious dolphins?
An intimate exchange of cooing, clicking, giggling, squeaking, shrieking and outright laughter (That’s right, dolphins do laugh). This meeting of the minds happened recently when Jenna Elfman, star of ABC sitcom Dharma and Greg, decided to fill a chink in her busy schedule by realizing a life-long dream: swimming with dolphins. The destination of choice? UNEXSO on Freeport, Grand Bahama, and its signature marine mammal program, the Dolphin Experience. The witnesses? Her entourage, the Dolphin Experience staff, Skin Diver magazine, an Entertainment Tonight film crew and millions of fans who vicariously shared the experience on an ET broadcast in November.

When the ET film crew and I arrived slightly before noon, both Jenna and her husband Bodhi were in the pool at the Lucayan Harbour Plaza Resort. Even before checking in, we began filming and photographing the action.

Having never dived before, Jenna and Bodhi were in the midst of their resort course. Even at this early point in the process, both people seemed thrilled about the experience of breathing underwater.

Following the pool session was a break for lunch and a mad dash to get all our underwater camera gear assembled. Within an hour, we were headed for Sanctuary Bay, the home of the Dolphin Experience’s resident population of Bottlenose Dolphins. A very large inland bay connected to the ocean by a canal, Sanctuary Bay is cleansed by the twice-daily tidal exchange and hosts a healthy marine community. It also provides plenty of room for dolphins to frolic in both safety and comfort.

The first step in dolphin/human interaction is an introductory session on a shallow platform. The dolphins come up, say hello and acquaint themselves with each of the guests. At the same time, the guests have the opportunity to learn about the physiology of the dolphins, the do’s and don’ts of contact—both physical and verbal—as well as to simply stroke them, gaze into their wide-open eyes and let a sense of mutual respect develop.

Jenna’s eyes spoke pure excitement. The dolphins sensed they were in touch with an individual exuding an even greater degree of energy and affection than normal, and they responded in kind. This attitude is a direct product of Jenna’s upbringing. Both Jenna and Bodhi (short for Bodhisattva, the Indian deity) are products of ’60s-era California parents, whose open-mindedness is reflected in the couple’s positive karma and intense respect for life. While her television role as Dharma (new-age child of hippy parents married to a corporate kind of guy) may be acting, it is not that far away from who she is at heart.

After their introduction, Jenna, Bodhi and the dolphins headed out to the open ocean for the real deal, an encounter with two of UNEXSO’s favorite dolphins in their natural, wild environment. The dive took place in just 30 to 40 feet of water over the gorgeous, bright-white sand bottom so typical of the Bahamas. Safety divers as well as trainers accompanied Jenna and Bodhi on their first open ocean dive with the dolphins, both for a sense of security as well as direction.

As for Jenna, her concerns about the technical aspects of diving virtually disappeared once the interaction with the dolphins began. Saying she was lost in the action would be an understatement—totally absorbed in the energy and joy of the moment is closer to the truth. Dolphins were swimming around her, coming up to be stroked, spinning her in circles, playing underwater kissy-face, and simply and unself-consciously dwelling with her in the liquid realm. To say the least, Jenna was absolutely ecstatic. And, I swear, so were the dolphins.