By Nicole Hussey
Some years ago, I took a boyfriend to SeaWorld in San Diego. He had few wants in life and swimming with dolphins was on his bucket list, so I booked us an extravagant SeaWorld experience and we drove down from Los Angeles.
Keep in mind, this was before the release of Blackfish. It was back when everyone felt the way about SeaWorld that they do about zoos; you hate that the animals are trapped in these small spaces but you justify pushing aside that sick feeling because it’s a “learning and conservation center” or because you just really want to see those spectacular creatures up close regardless of their cages.
I had swam with wild dolphins a number of times and spent most of my life in the ocean so I was excited to watch my boyfriend experience the magic these animals had consistently shared with me. He was nervous.
When we first entered the dolphin swim center, we went through a brief class. The instructor told us not to make any sudden movements, not to touch the dolphins until prompted, and not to keep our heads underwater. Then, we changed into some spiffy used wetsuits and washed our hands. Next, we were led over to this heartbreakingly small tank and allowed to step into waist deep water.
Seeing the excitement on my boyfriends face bolstered my mood and I ignored the surroundings as the trainers told us to put our hands to our sides and stand perfectly still. Then a dolphin swam up to us. It was solely focused on the trainer and as we were prompted to touch it as it swam by, it barely grazed our hands. After this introduction, the brave participants were allowed to hold on to the dorsal fin and go for a mini-ride around the tank.
It was both the saddest and most wonderful moment I’ve had with these beautiful animals.
In my experience, wild dolphins are incredibly noisy and alert. They are always chirping, talking, and making sounds that carry for miles. Even when they weren’t bumping my surfboard or swimming along side me while I snorkeled, you could still hear their incessant echoing clicks and clacks. Those sounds illuminate the dolphins’ beauty and intelligence.
At SeaWorld, the water was silent.
When I was holding the fin of that dolphin, my head dipped underwater. I wasn’t quick to come up, as I was excited to hear those chirps I knew so well. But, there were no clicks. There was absolutely no verbalization between the two dolphins that were sharing the small tank and pulling humans through the water. In fact, the only time I heard the dolphins’ chatter at all was when they were commanded or rewarded for doing so by their trainer.
We finished up the experience with kisses from the beautiful dolphins and I followed my boyfriend out of the tank. His elation was palpable but I couldn’t match it. I was stunned at how incredibly different it felt to swim with captive dolphins. How they weren’t curious about us. How they didn’t talk and play. How they watched their trainers like their lives depended on it.
My boyfriend lost the pictures they took of us with the dolphins. Instead, there are just a few shots of them before we entered the tank and then after we left while they were being fed. I’m kind of glad the pictures are gone. I don’t like to think about how quiet it was that day.
Nicole Hussey lives in Los Angeles, and has spent her life traveling the world. She has written for the LA Times and the United Nations.