Monday, March 14, 2011

Tails from the Heart: A Pat on the Head

I've experienced a lot of Middle Flipper Events in my career thus far.  They make my job interesting, funny, and keep me humble.  As I've mentioned in a previous post, Middle Flipper Events are further proof that the animals with whom I interact are their own beings, not robots who are programmed to perform.


I can't forget to share with all of you the countless moments when the animals share a tender moment with me.  Because I love words and puns, I've decided to call these posts "Tails from the Heart". 

I'll give you seven seconds to moan/roll your eyes/show disdain that'd put an angst-filled teenager to shame.

The first story I want to share is about a Pacific white-sided dolphin named Loke and her calf Ohana. They came into my life when I was a brand-new dolphin trainer and provided me with one of my first Tails from the Heart.

The Pacific white-sided dolphin.  Cute.  Little.  Fast.  Learn more about them; click here!

As a new trainer, I was "most valuable" doing the things that most non-trainers never get to see us doing.  I cleaned a lot of buckets, scrubbed a lot of fish prep sinks, sorted through hundreds of pounds of fish and weighed out over 20 dolphins' daily diets.   I also got to do a lot of pool cleaning, which translated to using a hydraulic scrubber and scuba gear to wipe off as much as algae as possible.

Hydraulic scrubbers are a gas.  Well, they are fun when you know how to use them.  The problem with these scrubbers are that they usually involve a gasoline or electric engine, a high-pressured water hose, and a scrubber “head”; a contraption that has a motor, a spinning, circular brush, and a trigger of some kind that looked kind of like bike brakes, but worked in the opposite manner.  If you squeezed the trigger, the scrubber turned on full force.  The brush spun and you could scrub a habitat in far less time than if you scrubbed it with a brillo-pad.

Behold, the Scrubber Head!
The best part; turning this beast on with a lawn-mower pull thing.  The string always broke.

The problem see, is that the Trigger and the Scrubber are not good bedfellows with Lumpy Nerd Kids like myself.  When you pull the Trigger, it causes the Scrubber to move its brush around at an alarming rate.  It pulls the scrubber constantly to the left, so you have to continuously force it to stay straight to assure that you don’t lose control of it.  The trigger was tough. 

At the time of this story, I had to work with a scrubber with a Dial instead of Trigger.  I’m sure the Selling Point of the Scrubber Head with a Dial was, “NOW Controllable!”

It seemed genius; you slowly turn on the scrubber via the dial (and therefore the force of the torque) and use it with as much power as you could handle. 

The problem is, if you lost control of it, that was it.  The scrubber spun uncontrollably without a human at the helm.  You’d have to surface and let your spotter know to turn off the engine that supplied power to the scrubber head, or you had the option of wrestling the scrubber head underwater using brute strength and stupidity.  

I’ll be honest; once you figure out how to use this thing, it’s a LOT of fun.  It’s a great workout, it’s fulfilling in the way it magically erases algae, and it gives you a couple of hours of alone time where you can think about important things such as Mitch Hedberg one-liners, what you’ll make for dinner, or the same repeated two lines of a song you hate (“Heyyyyy Macarena!)*.  But, even when you mastered the Dial Scrubber, your entire dive was attenuated with anxiety involving Control Loss of Scrubber Head. 

In addition to my fear I'd Lose Control, I dreaded diving in one pool.  The cold pool.  The one with Loke and Ohana. 

Don’t get me wrong; I thought that they were great animals.  Most of my interactions with them had been underwater, and those were simply me just cleaning their habitat as they swam around.  I had seen Ohana a few hours after she was born, had watched her nurse from her mother, and had seen her start to mouth fish at only a few months old. 

The author with Loke (who did not tip for this massage, by the way).

But her pool was kept chilled at 62 degrees Fahrenheit. The kind of temperature that makes you feel like you have an ice-cream headache all over.  Alas, Pacific white-sided dolphins are cold-water dolphins.  With the right wetsuit, trainers can be kept warm in 62 degree water, but I was not one of those trainers with one of those wetsuits.

All I had was a 3mm wetsuit (suitable for temperatures in the low seventies with prolonged exposure) and a dive hood, some dive boots, and gloves.  At the time, I had no idea that I was inappropriately dressed.  Being a Chicagoan, I had no idea what wetsuit thickness really was, thinking that as long as a had A Wetsuit, I'd be warm.  If I got cold, it wasn't because of a wetsuit that was too thin, it was because I'd Been in The Pool a Long Time.

Nonetheless, I dove in Loke and Ohana’s pool at least once a week (other trainers cleaned in there throughout the week, too) and each time I’d use two tanks, putting my dive time between one to two hours.  It goes without saying that when I finished, I was Fuh-Reezing.  All I could think about after I submerged with my second tank was, “Just scrub as hard as you can so you can keep yourself warm.  Warmish.  Not hypothermic.  Heyyyyyyyyyyy Macarena!”

On one such a dive, I found myself faced with another Hazard of Diving with Loke and Ohana: Ohana’s growing brain and curiosity that required her to be Face to Face with me on my dives.  Was she investigating my regulator and exhaled bubbles?  Did she find the sound the scrubber head made underwater enriching?  Was she checking to make sure I didn’t miss any algae spots? 

Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii Caaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Why is this a Hazard?  Well, it’s not really a Hazard to my person, but to the scrubber gear.  Dolphins seem to enjoy pulling on hoses, and high-pressure hoses have a conduit that is easily broken into vis-à-vis sharp dolphin teeth.  Again, all living creatures are unaffected by broken hoses, but the very expensive high-pressure conduit dies a terrible death.  So, if a dolphin shows interest in your scrubbing equipment when you’re diving, you just keep calm and carry on. 

Ohana had no desire to leave me alone.  She only left me to surface for air, or to nurse quickly from her mom, and then would return in her position directly in front of me.  I continued to scrub carefully.

After what seemed like a half an hour, Ohana left her post.  I looked around after a few minutes of noticing Ohana’s absence and found her swimming contentedly next to her mother.  Thinking my time of scrubbing was nearing an end, and focusing on controlling my shivering, I moved to the final patch of algae that lay between me and a shower whose temperature could be compared to flames erupting from the surface of the sun.

But then, I saw a familiar shadow creep over me and the bottom of the habitat.  Ohana was back.  But this time, she brought her mother with her. 

Oh god, I thought.  They’re both going to sit in front of me and I’m going to worry about conduit and about getting the habitat cleaned and about Losing Control and by the time I get out of here, I’m going to have to light myself on fire to dethaw.   My arms were tired from scrubbing, and I was out of breath.  I dropped my knees to the floor to help keep me and the scrubber head in place while I braced for the curious mammals to block my path.

I waited.  And then I felt a gentle pressure on my head.  It was very, very light, like a piece of paper being gently dragged over your clothes.

It stopped.  Ohana’s little body swam ahead of me, turned around, and her head and flippers stopped right at my head.  One of her flippers started stroking the top of my dive hood.  The pressure was firm enough so that I could feel it, but gentle enough that it was just a faint feeling.

Ohana did this for a few seconds, and then swam away with her mother.  I smiled through my regulator, forgetting my anxious feelings I’d had just moments earlier.  This little dolphin had come by and given me something that they usually reserve for each other; a loving reassurance in the form of a flipper rub.

Thanks for the head pat, little lady!

What can I take this to mean?  I don’t think about it too deeply.  I didn’t have my crystal ball with me at the time (an oversight, clearly), so I couldn’t tell what was going through Ohana’s head as she patted mine.  What I do know is that it completely changed my attitude about the icy dive, and from that day through present day, I never take a dive with any dolphins for granted.  

Ohana is now at the same facility where I became inspired to become a dolphin trainer.  She is doing very well.  I think about her a lot, and the gift she gave to me as a young trainer.  Animals give gifts to people all of the time, and I don't know how aware they are of their positive impact.  But I suppose humans can follow their lead; how can you impact the lives of others without requiring acknowledgment, but just doing it because it's a nice thing to do?


* What songs get stuck in your head when you scuba dive?


  1. Aww... what a nice story. I'll keep that tip in mind about wetsuit thickness. ;P

    Also... I have yet to scuba dive, but I'd probably thing of some song from The Police.

  2. A wonderfully told story of a wonderful encounter.

    Purple Haze - Jimi Hendrix

  3. Such a cute story!!!

    Though I hate to admit it, "Part of your world" from the little mermaid... best dive song ever.

  4. How touching C:
    Any song, because where I dive (Mermett, IL=Superman county) they play your song requests underwater. I've only requested Ozzy and I HOPE someone never requests the Jaws theme! (I'll be outta there like a fish outta water. Hah.)

  5. I am jealous, you get an electric scrubber, we used pieces of wetsuits that have been retired from wearing.

  6. Ohana would always watch me in whale pool, and would try to target to the back of my hand (we were using the hand scrubs in there because of whale-girl), and JJ would always pull the scrubber hose in TopDeck. He lifted me (all 200lbs of me) along with the scrubber head off the bottom a number of times when he would fluke the hose.

    However, Romeo the manatee was my favorite: he would become...amorous with any intern we sent in to scrub his pool.

    and The Final Countdown by Europe is my scuba-bane

  7. And now, that song is in my head. Duhnuh-nuh-NUH, duhnuh-nuh nuh-nuh!