Sunday, November 29, 2015

Why I Can't Complain About Cold Weather Anymore

In my hemisphere, it's getting cold, and that spells out woe for marine mammal trainers.  Yes, even in Florida.  And if you're someone shaking your head at me because you're "from the North" and it "doesn't get cold" in Florida, I invite you to hang out in a wet wetsuit in 30 degree weather for 8 hours.  

Grumpy cat is wise.

Anyways, I feel like the approach of winter means a lot of things for those of us in the zoological community.  First, the holidays.  We celebrate/work (not mutually exclusive) for both of the major holidays in the U.S. November and December and it's always a special time.  

Second, it usually means slow season (with some bumps during the holiday period).  February in Florida is glorious for natives, because all the tourists are gone and the snowbirds are starting to migrate homeward.  


And third, winter time means being chilled and freezing your hands to the point where everything actually feels like it's boiling hot and then you can't feel anything anymore.

For most of my career, I've worked at a place that offers dolphin interactive programs in the water.  I've done my fair share of deep-water programs in freezing temperatures (with 28 degree air temps and 50 degree water).  It's pretty miserable, even though the animals are awesome.  Why? Because you are freezing, and your guests are ULTRA FREEZING.  There is nothing worse than seeing a little kid looking like they are vibrating out of this plane of existence because they are shivering so much.  You can't have a jolly time educating a kid about dolphins when they are in the final stages of hypothermia.

"I'm. Cold."  Thanks "Are You Afraid Of The Dark", for this recurring nightmare I have had since I was 8.

Sometimes, you get guests who think they are tough.  Like the family I met from Canada who chose to do a swim program during one of the coldest days of the year.  Like, the mist whipping off of the Atlantic ocean was turning into snow.  And I gave this educational tour to a family I knew I'd be taking into deep, cold water and even though I was in three wetsuits, I knew I was going to feel like my entire body was experiencing an ice-cream headache for about 20 minutes.  

So we get to the point where I give them their wetsuits, and the father looks at me and this exchange happens:

Canadian dude: Oh, no.  We don't need those.

Me: Uh yes, you really do.  It's very cold in that water and I'd highly recommend a wetsuit.

Canadian dude: Don't need 'em.  We're from Canada.

The rest of the family smiled and nodded at me.

I begged.  I pleaded.  I used my most persuasive arguments, tone and body language.  But nothing could convince the Canadians to heed my advice.  Alas, they came out in the frigid, gusty below-freezing air, donned their life jackets, and followed me into the water. 

Down the zero-entry beach we went.  But as the water moved up past their ankles, some of the family members bucked.  There were a lot of "holy cows" and a couple of them ran out of the water.  The father made it all the way up to his torso before declaring defeat.  We paused the program, gave them wetsuits, and continued on (they complained about being cold the entire time).

Polar Bear Club they were not.

It's experiences like this that make us as trainers dread people signing up for water programs during the winter time.  In the slow seasons, we get used to having many days in a row where nobody signs up for such a program, which allows us to do different types of training sessions.  We can get in the water and sometimes do, but it's always different when you feel like it's your choice to do so (versus doing a program knowing your guests are going to be miserable).  It may not be super professional, but it's the honest way we tend to feel during this time of year.

But I learned an important lesson on this topic.

On one extremely cold, cloudy day in the slow season, a shallow water dolphin program signed up at the VERY LAST MINUTE.  That is the WORST.  You're all like, "Woohoo, two minutes before the cutoff for this wet program! Let's stay dry today and just do a big play session with the dolphins!"  And then you hit the refresh button on the computer reservation website and BAM, there's that program.  One person.  Draaaaaaaat.

Look at those warm, dry trainers.

I volunteered to do the program.  I put my wetsuit on and went to the dolphin habitat.  
That's when I saw our guest, who looked like he had a serious problem walking. That added more stress; it was important that we did everything safely for every guest, but that was more difficult when someone needed more assistance.  However, when he introduced himself to me, his speech was a little slurred but he was very sharp, cracking jokes left and right.  I really took a liking to this man.

We made our way to our entry point,  which involves a ladder (this was not the same place with the zero-entry beach) which is where I realized he basically couldn't get in the water using the methods we typically use.  He kept trying different things, but for some reason his feet kept giving out on him.  I suggested we just hang out poolside and interact with the animals there, because I could not think of a safe way for him to enter.

"Can I just jump in?"

If you want more, more, more

I hadn't thought of that for some reason.  All the dolphins were with trainers, and were used to us jumping in.  The guest had a life jacket on and I'd worked at other facilities where we had guests jump in the water from the side.

After reassuring me that he jumps into pools from diving boards, I agreed to let him do it.  Once he was in the water, he'd swim over to the platform just a foot or so away.  I had another trainer right there on the platform to assist him.  It seemed like it would be fine.  And then....

SPLASH.  He jumped in.  He sank briefly below the surface, then popped back up, white water exploding around him as he screamed I DON'T WANT TO DIE LIKE THIS.


The other trainer and I quickly grabbed his life jacket and pulled him to the platform as he futilely grabbed at the water, trying to find something to hold onto, screaming at the top of his lungs.  He didn't calm down until he was on the platform, and then he told me he didn't know why that freaked him out so much, but he figured it was because the water was much colder than he expected.

We did the program without any other incidents.  He seemed to love every minute of it, especially because it was just him, me, and one of the dolphins.  Then, at the end of the experience, I turned to him and asked him if he had a good time.  He got really quiet for a while.  Then finally he said:

"Yes.  This is very special for me.  Because I only have 6 months to live."

I just stared at him in stunned silence.  He continued, "I have aggressive brain cancer.  And they only gave me 6 months to live."  And then he started to cry.

I wanted to cry too.  I wanted to do something for this man, for this gentle person who was tormented by such an awful fate.  The dolphins were having a great session, so I asked the trainers to stay in the water for a few more minutes and we extended the program.  He played with them using their favorite toys, he gave them rub-downs.  And at the end of the program, I met his best friend who traveled with him to Florida just to do this experience.  They told us this was the man's last wish on his bucket list because dolphins were his favorite animal.  His friend had taken a lot of photos and knew they would enjoy re-living the experience when they looked at them at home.  The trainers and I grabbed a painting done by the dolphin he interacted with primarily and gave it to him as a gift.  It seemed like such an insignificant token to give to someone in that circumstance.

Both these ladies were involved in this story

We parted ways afterwards.  I never heard anything about him.  That was years ago, so chances are he is gone.  I feel so embarrassed and small when I think about how much I dreaded doing that program just because it was cold outside.  I wound up having an incredible connection with someone dealing with something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.  Hopefully, the experience was as meaningful to him as he hoped it would be.

So now anytime we get a program on a cold, slow day, we remember that man.  We put a smile on our face and have a great time.  It takes sobering moments to bring joy back into your life, sometimes.  

Phew, that got real heavy real fast.  The point is, it's easy to lose sight of what's important when we are doing the daily grind.  Remember that every guest you interact with, especially if you're doing an interaction program, views this experience as a once-in-a-lifetime thing.  Your encounter with them may move them to positive action for an animal in need.  Every single time you we interact with guests, we have an opportunity to make them an ally as we all fight to save the natural world.  That doesn't mean you won't be freezing some days.  But hey, those days give you an excuse to mainline hot chocolate.  And that ain't a bad thing.

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