Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
SeaWorld dolphin show. "It seems to me, walking along, that I’ve become a kind of dolphin myself."
“My job is to control the image,” says Colleen Gibbs, who works in the public relations department at SeaWorld of California. “If National Public Radio calls and says it's Marine Mammal Freedom Week and someone is going to be picketing outside the park, my job is to provide a counter.” Not herself, she says, but an expert biologist who’s done work with SeaWorld. SeaWorld of Florida doesn’t have to deal with environmental activists the way SeaWorld of California does, she says — California is a more environmentally active place. Gibbs says she also deals with film crews — the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, public television, and so on.
The dolphins are supposed to get close to the target before turning, to give the trainer time to get steady on her feet, but on the first run they turn early and Bakey falls off.
Today Gibbs is controlling the image with me. It’s taken many calls and a lot of persuasion for me to get into SeaWorld to interview the dolphin trainers. When this started months ago Gibbs asked if I would be talking with the other side, the animal-rights people—it was something they always asked when journalists came to SeaWorld — and I said no. (And because I said no, I never did.) I figured I had a fairly good grasp of the issues anyway, since I’d been writing about marine life for more than a decade. I told her I’d once been a dolphin trainer, and it may have been this which, after a refusal, got me into the park to speak with the trainers and to participate in the Dolphin Interaction Program.
By the time I’d arrived this morning and stood waiting in the security office, where workers filed by flashing ID cards to the sounds of “Okay, Okay, Okay, Okay,” I had already interviewed the head dolphin trainer, Bill Hoffman. It was a telephone interview, by speaker phone from Gibbs’s office — all interviews, I was told, were to be conducted with Gibbs present, and all telephone interviews were to be conducted by speaker phone.
I was the lucky one, getting backstage to see the dolphins, getting to talk to the trainers about their work. Later on, after this was all over, Gibbs would write to me that SeaWorld of California “never devoted the amount of time we made available to you to any print or broadcast reporter covering the dolphin-training element of our park.” She may have told me this because when I left the park after a second visit a few days later, we weren’t speaking, and she may have told me this because it was her job, after all, to control the image.
Dolphin training and dolphin performance are about control too — though there’s more to it, and in a way dolphin training could serve as a model for the best kind of parental training. But I’ve always found controlling the image a hard thing to do, a biggie, right up there with controlling your fate or your destiny, or hardest of all, controlling other people.
At the doors of an aquarium Gibbs and I join a group of people, some of whom have paid $125 to interact with dolphins. Inside a theater we have a view of six Commerson’s dolphins, which have come from Chile. Our guide, whose name is Justin, tells us about the disruptive camouflage patterns on their bodies, that they’re too fidgety and have too short an attention span to be in a dolphin show. He talks about echolocation, a dolphin’s ability to orient by sound, says that they hear through their jawbones, and passes around a tuning fork so that we can touch it to our jawbones. He also tells about the training principle called the “three-second pause,” the neutral response to undesirable behavior that is the cornerstone of dolphin training here. He demonstrates this by standing still for a moment and removing all expression from his face. The three-second pause, he says, is also called “Least Reinforcing Stimulus.”
When we file out of the theater and move over to the back pools of the dolphin stadium, Justin shows us the hand signal for “passing a dolphin,” a pointing motion across the body, and he tells us to be affirmative in our signals because “dolphins can read your level of energy.” He tells us more about Least Reinforcing Stimulus and adds that “positive reinforcement builds a positive relationship.”
Then the head trainer Bill Hoffman joins us. Hoffman is in his 30s, tanned, slim, and fit, with an air of confidence and happiness. He also talks about Least Reinforcing Stimulus and tells us that it is a response that is “slightly above neutral, and never negative.” There is always eye contact, he says. Least Reinforcing Stimulus tells the animals “that failure is a part of learning, that it’s okay to fail.” The dolphins are never punished, and they are never deprived of food for not performing correctly.
Hoffman tells us that to keep the dolphins interested and stimulated there are variations in the reinforcements and rewards. They give fish in varying numbers. They regularly introduce new toys into the pool. Very important is “tactile stimulation,” which includes rubbing and touching, but also such things as pouring warm water or ice cubes into the dolphins’ mouths, “which they seem to like.” Sometimes they don’t reward proper behavior at all, he says, to keep unpredictability in the dolphins’ lives, which seems to improve response. The name for this principle is “Variable Reinforcement with Reinforcement Variety.”
When Hoffman tells us it’s time to get into our wet suits I think — Did I miss something? In my conversations with Colleen Gibbs, when she said I would be participating in the Dolphin Interaction Program, that it would be “hands-on,” did she also tell me I’d be getting into a wet suit and getting into the water? When I mention this, her response is, well, neutral. She doesn’t say anything.
But that’s okay, I don’t mind. This is great, actually. I get to go into the water with dolphins, something I haven’t done for 20 years, something I used to do all the time.
When I was 21 and in between colleges, living on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, I answered an ad in the newspaper for a “fish curator” at a small aquarium. It was a mom-and-pop operation, and I was third in command, responsible for feeding the animals and catching fish for the tanks and for putting on dolphin and seal shows two or three times a day. The seals, picked up off the beaches, lived in a little pond, came up a ladder, took a fish from me, and slid down a slide to applause. The dolphins lived in a homemade concrete pool with brackish water pumped in from the salt marsh and filtered through sandboxes. It was green most of the time but the dolphins were happy, as dolphins always seem to be.
Stormy, Salty, and Spray had come from Marineland of Florida already knowing the show. My job was to learn the script and lead them through it — playing basketball, jumping through hoops, spitting out a fire. The climax of the show was when Spray, the biggest and dominant dolphin at 1200 pounds, 30-plus years old, would jump ten feet into the air and pluck a cigarette (a piece of rolled paper) out of my mouth. Spray was good at it, rising into the air, plucking the cigarette cleanly from between my lips as I stood on the platform with jaw thrust out and hands behind my back. But each year Spray took a two-week “vacation” and boycotted the show. Because these were grimmer times, Spray was not fed when she didn’t perform. Nevertheless, she still got her meals, slamming the other dolphins aside when I fed them, after they had jumped through hoops and spit out fires, etc. One time when I’d had enough of Spray’s body-slamming, I threw a piece of fish at her, intending to hit her in the head but actually hitting her in the eye. Spray threw herself backwards, raced down to the far end of the pool, and swam around in circles, blowing up bursts of air.
A few tricks later I tried the cigarette trick, explaining to the crowd, who had been watching what had happened, that Spray was on vacation and probably wouldn’t participate. But when I blew the whistle and put the paper in my mouth and my arms behind my back, I saw her rippling form coming along underneath the water. I didn’t move, even though I was afraid — there was something wonderful about dolphins I thought, just like everybody else. Spray exploded from the water, rose into the air, smacked me in the jaw for the first time ever, and then somehow nipped away the cigarette too.
My favorite time as a fish curator was when I got to release a loggerhead sea turtle. I drove it south to Nantucket Sound in the back of a pickup truck, lumbered with it across the beach, my hands on the front part of the shell, the back part of the shell on my thighs, and then watched it flip and flap through the waves into the ocean. I left the job after a year, bored with the routines, tired of seeing the dolphins in the fetid pool. But I truly had gotten an experience with dolphins.
In the men’s locker room I’m joined by two others. A father, an airline pilot, has brought his daughter here as a gift because she loves dolphins. A husband from Baltimore on a belated honeymoon has come here with his wife, who has loved dolphins all her life and sees this as the fulfillment of a dream. They’re in bathing suits. I’m in my underwear, and we get into our wet suits, helping each other zip up. We put on rubber booties, and out we go into the fresh air, skin-tight and rubberized.
I’m choking at the collar, and I’m feeling naked for two reasons. One is the wet suit, which is small for me. My underwear is showing through, I fear, and I feel like my stomach, advancing into middle age ahead of me, is sticking out. I’m pulling at my rubber collar and keeping my gut in, trying not to look at anybody, including the middle-aged women — the mothers, I assume, of the young women who make up most of this group. The other reason I’m feeling naked is because I no longer have my pen or my notebook, which is how I take notes.
Bill Hoffman speaks to us again and explains the daily life at the pool, as I remember it. He says there are husbandry sessions in which, amazingly, the animals present their tail flukes to have blood samples drawn (they are also able to urinate on command — one wonders what the signal is for that). There are learning sessions, when the training is done. There is playtime, and feeding time, and there are “relationship sessions,’’ when the trainer merely spends time with the dolphins. The relationship sessions are important — it’s a kind of buzzword here — and significant time is devoted to them. There’s a bit more to Bill Hoffman’s talk. I’m simultaneously feeling conspicuous in my wet suit, while trying to remember what Hoffman is saying, and thinking that while this is fun it’s also a public relations effort. I think that this is what journalists often encounter — the job of writing a neutral story in the face of the agenda to control it.
A photographer announces that all those who want photos are to wear wristbands. There’s a photographer from public relations there for me.
We break into smaller groups and I’m joined by two women, Jennifer and Sarah, who are 20 and have just finished a year of nursing school. For them, this is the reward for a long and stressful year at school. This year, for the first time, they had been interacting with real patients in a hospital. Jennifer loved it, she says, though it had been very, very hard. Sarah found that she was taking it all home, that she couldn’t stop thinking about the patients, and so has decided to transfer out of nursing and study business.
Erin Bakey, a dolphin trainer, an exuberant, athletic woman with an incredible smile, joins us to do the “dry session,” at the edge of the pool. We learn how to pass and accept a dolphin, how to point and make hand targets. Sarah goes first, giving a signal to make the dolphin rise up on its tail, after which she tosses a handful of ice cubes into its mouth. Jennifer makes the dolphin spit water and splash, and then gives it a piece of fish. I hold the dolphin by its fluke and, in a crouch, lead it along the edge of the pool. Bakey shows me a pitcher of warm water, which I pour into the animal’s mouth before leading it back to the group.
The four of us then sit side by side and have a touching session, turning the dolphin onto our laps and rubbing its side and belly. When Jennifer asks about a series of numbers burned into the dolphin’s side, Bakey says that a long time ago they thought they needed brands to recognize a dolphin, that they didn’t know the personalities of the animals could serve to identify them. We rub the dolphin one way, with its head on my lap, and it’s turned around so that I get the tail end. After rubbing, we stand up and wave good-bye and clap like trainers in a show, while the dolphin waves back to us. Jennifer and Sarah are clearly very happy.
We go to another part of the pool and join Bill Hoffman for our “wet training.” Hoffman talks about physiology, examining a dolphin called Misty, showing us the flukes, the blowhole, the nose, the eyes, and the small teeth in the lower jaw. After more rubbing and petting, we end with “dolphin hugs” each of us getting down on a knee and holding Misty around the middle.
There is a lot of photo-taking. This reminds me of a time when I was in Egypt and went to a nightclub near the Pyramids called Sahara City, to watch belly dancing. After the dancers finished their routines they went table to table, posing, followed by a photographer. I got a copy of one of them, leaning in to touch my cheek with hers.
After the wet session we follow Tom Jernigan, another trainer, into the shed where the food is kept and prepared. A cooler is there, and a blackboard with the feeding amounts, in pounds per day. One pilot whale gets 110 pounds of fish a day, another gets 97 pounds, and the dolphins, between 15 and 25 pounds, if memory serves me right. There are lists of vitamins per animal. And schedules for performance, learning, play, and husbandry.
Then Jernigan takes us out to the stadium pool, and we stand onstage. A dolphin rises up to greet us and Jernigan says she’s pregnant, 3 months into a 12-month gestation. She’s the star athlete, he says able to jump 19 feet into the air, and as of yet is unaffected by the pregnancy. A pilot whale comes up to greet us too. Deep black with a bulbous head, about 20 feet long (these are the animals famous for beaching themselves in groups), the whale bobs up and vomits a little food for us that permanent silly grin on its face, Jernigan tells us about the depth of the pool, which is 36 feet, and says that anyone interviewing to be a SeaWorld trainer must swim to the bottom.
It’s a drizzly, gloomy day, and by the time we finish, standing there in our wet suits Jennifer and Sarah are clutching themselves and shivering. I’m cold too, and still sucking in my gut. We’re ready to head back to the locker rooms where there are hot showers. The husband, the father, both talk about bow great it was. The father says it seems odd to him that it’s mostly young women doing this. It’s hard to speculate on the reason. Colleen Gibbs has told of a mother who enrolled her daughter in this program after her daughter, in love with dolphins, had gotten a tattoo of a dolphin. Could it have something to do with love, that dolphins seem to love us so much, or the positive feeling about relationships that dolphins present? Their sensuousness, perhaps? Now, if you could ride the dolphin, if you could strap a man on and send him into the air screaming, there might be more of an even draw here.
The group from the Dolphin Interaction Program files off to some other place, while Colleen Gibbs and I go into the stadium to watch the first dolphin show of the day. It's an athletic presentation, with the dolphins flying high, spinning and flipping. Gibbs tells me that the show isn’t based on tricks anymore, which makes it too much like a circus act. But the trainers do ride the dolphins in the way that circus performers ride horses, and there even is a trick on the audience — like the old circus trick when the clown throws a bucket of water that turns out to be paper — when Erin Bake, a “plant,” falls into the water and gets pushed around, upright, on the nose of a pilot whale. The audience gets let in on the trick, Gibbs says, because people used to complain. There’s the standard splashing session at the end of the show, with the dolphins and whales crashing onto their sides and soaking the audience.
After the show, Bill Hoffman speaks to us at the back of the pool. Hoffman studied psychology at Bowling Green University and began training sea lions at SeaWorld of Ohio in 1984. He wanted to train animals and had an interest in education and so has been able to follow a “parallel path,” combining the two professionally. While working at SeaWorld of California, Hoffman used their educational-assistance program to get a master’s degree in human behavior at National University.
“We try to present the animals in a natural light, without glitz,” he says of the dolphin shows. “We try to show that they are intelligent animals with high-energy behavior, intelligent and powerful. It’s all an extension of their natural abilities. They play with each other, which conveys the social aspect. Relationship is the foundation by which we train. We build trust, which takes time. You have to spend time looking at them. There’s a lot of eye contact, rubbing them down, feeding them. Relationship allows them to do what we do in the shows. We trust them, and they trust us, through interaction and positive experience.”
They spend an hour a day, he says, five or ten minutes at a time, building the attention span of the animals. “As far as relationship goes, sitting with them, you cannot do that too long.”
Hoffman has also trained killer whales, otters, and birds. He has trained eagles — the fish eagle and the Australian wedge-tail. “They’re naturally standoffish, very shy.” And walruses, which he says are overlooked in terms of intelligence. Though not as social as dolphins, probably because they’re independent bottom feeders, they’re very smart, with a longer attention span than a sea lion. Developing a relationship with a walrus is also a matter of spending time, making eye contact, and rubbing them — walruses love to have their whiskers rubbed. And of course sea lions are fun to work with because of their natural sense of humor. Up on land, interacting with humans, they become comedians—“We take the sea lions in the park, walk on the pathways, use golf carts with a flatbed to take them to night parties. They look so comfortable and familiar on the golf truck, like a dog in the back of a pickup truck. They have a funny side to them, they get the last laugh.”
When Hoffman began working at SeaWorld, the concept of relationship was already in place — it’s variation that has increased. There are more rewards, more kinds of motivations, which has resonance with human relationships. “With children it’s the same thing. As they mature, the relationships mature, and the important thing is change.’’ As in a friendship, he says — you spend time with friends, and hopefully they like it; you do different things, and the relationship stays interesting. With humans it might be golf or hiking or dancing. With dolphins, “You use ice cubes. You jump into the water with them. They seem to respond to enthusiasm and relationship.” And of course the animals have things to teach. One of the ironies of zoos and animal parks is that they increase awareness of the free animals in nature. “After being on the bird stage for a couple of years,” Hoffman says, “I saw that humans cause a kind of cancer, that we do have an impact.”
Hoffman oversees a staff of 11 trainers. Every day he interacts with the eight dolphins, aged 4 to 22, and the two pilot whales, aged 17 and 37, and he does at least one show a day. In the morning there’s a discussion about what they’ll be doing in the Dolphin Interaction Program, about what toys may be used that day, and about what rewards to use in the shows. The program, he says, is for people to get an education about dolphins: “It’s a saturation effect. There’s touching, looking in the eyes, feeding. It’s a dream of people to do this.” The program has rewards for the dolphins too—it provides ways for them to meet people and provides unpredictability to their day.
And Hoffman enjoys what he is doing—he too is living his dream, interacting with animals. “I get paid to do this,” he says. “I pinch myself sometimes and think. What more could you want? I don’t have to work with computers or machines. There’s no daily input and output.”
As for animal activists and dolphin-captivity issues: “They don’t understand what we do. We have an active breeding program. They [the dolphins] are ambassadors for dolphins out in the ocean. The animals in the ocean have no vet. Here they’re taken care of, in water that’s filtered. We have training, and it stimulates their minds. All the animals are trained, though they’re never completely trained They’re always learning, always interacting. We’re here to meet their needs. It’s great for me; I love being here for them.”
Toward the end of our talk Julie Scardina, the curator of the animal-training department, stops by the table. Scardina has recently been on the Jay Leno show with an otter named Norton. Our little table with an umbrella by the pool reminds her of the restaurant by the killer whale pool, and Scardina jokes that they’ve talked about putting a restaurant over here, maybe having something called “dining with dolphins.” Sensing some wrong note in this, Colleen Gibbs says, “Julie, I’ll talk with you later,” which brings a puzzled look to Scardina’s face. I say I’m out of questions but that I might like to talk with Bill Hoffman again, and Gibbs says to go through her office and ask the questions on speaker phone.
Gibbs walks me back to her office, gives me publicity releases and booklets from the education department and a show schedule, and I’m free to wander through the park. I make a loop, passing by the killer whale pool, stopping to see J.J. the gray whale, but then there I am, back at the dolphin pool. There’s a gate at the entrance, and I don’t feel right about crossing it, so I stand there. But soon Bill Hoffman comes onto the stage with three other trainers: Erin Bakey, Tom Jernigan, and Suzanne Morgan. Because of the weather the two o’clock show has been canceled. The trainers are doing a learning session. When Hoffman sees me he calls out, “You can come in,” and so I take a seat in the stands. I’m glad to be there, to see something happening spontaneously, and it feels good that Hoffman trusts me, but I’m thinking I’ve probably transgressed a public relations policy.
First they work with Tom Jernigan on leading Bubbles, one of the pilot whales. He tries without success at first to get her to come with him along the edge of the pool. He calls out: “I put a hand target on the water and she was supposed to come to it! She ignored it!” Suzanne Morgan calls to him: “You’re out of context! [Meaning, he’s not standing in the right place.] Lead her along!” Morgan, I’ve been told, was a dolphin in another life; she is the most enthusiastic among this most enthusiastic group.
When Jernigan does succeed in keeping the whale with him while walking along the pool, the three trainers applaud and congratulate him. Bubbles, who may have been playing with Jernigan a bit, spits water in his face.
They spend time trying to get a young dolphin named Ajax into the stadium pool, something he’s never done before. They all go into the back pool and pass the animal back and forth, and then Hoffman walks along the edge to the big pool and tries to coax Ajax into the deep water. When Ajax gets about halfway through the gate, he spooks and darts back. Hoffman mimics him, saying “Whoa!” He returns to the small pool, feeds the animal, and tries to coax him in again, but Ajax isn’t ready. The other trainers in the back pool coax him on too, joking, giving encouragement.
This done, they spend about 15 minutes with Sabrina, a four-year-old dolphin that has been working in the petting pool and is now beginning to work her way into the show They throw a rope into the water for her to retrieve, doing this a number of times in an attempt to get her familial with ropes so that she can jump over them later on.
Last of all, Erin Bakey works on riding two dolphins at once. Their names are Misty and Dolly (earlier in the day, Misty worked the Dolphin interaction Program). Bakey dives down into the water, turns upright and waits while the two dolphins plunge, turn, and streak in underneath her. They take different arcs, but at the last moment the two animals are side-by-side underneath the woman. Bill Hoffman, standing nearby, says of this, “They’ll screw around a little bit, it’s the free-will thing, the freedom to choose. It keeps us on our toes, and them on theirs. Again, this human resonance.
Bakey rises up, her hands out to the side, an undulating dolphin under each toot, and heads for Suzanne Morgan, at the corner of the pool with a handheld target. The dolphins are supposed to get close to the target before turning, to give the trainer time to get steady on her feet, but on the first run they turn early and Bakey falls off. She gets up on the stage, dives in again, and the dolphins streak in. This time they wait to turn and Bakey blasts around the pool, her legs shaking in the frothing water.
The trainers applaud and cheer for the three of them. “Give a nice rubbing,” Hoffman calls out to Bakey, “and then go for the harness.” Bakey rubs the two dolphins and talks to them and then dives into the water again. This time she’s holding a strap with a loop in the end, and this time when the dolphins streak in, one of them puts its nose through the loop (“the pickup’s a bit different,” Hoffman says) and Bakey soars around the stadium pool like a mythological goddess astride her delphinic counterparts.
Now people are arriving for the four o’clock show. The trainers and the animals recede to the hack pools. A guitar player takes the stage, sings “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” and explains the limits of the “soak zone.” The recorded music starts and the trainers are introduced — Suzanne Morgan, Erin Bakey, Tom Jernigan, and Dave Roberts. The gates open, and three dolphins fly high into the air. The pilot whale splashes. Dolphins are up and spinning. Another does a pair of flips. The dolphins dance. Bakey and Jernigan ride dolphins singly, and then Bakey tries to ride a pair of dolphins without a harness but falls off. Suddenly a dolphin goes leaping into the air as a diversion, and quickly Bakey is back into the water with a harness. This time she goes all the way around. Then Bill Hoffman appears onstage posing as a father with a wife and child. He falls into the water while taking a picture and then rides the nose of a pilot whale. When he’s introduced as “Bill, SeaWorld Trainer,” members of the family sitting next to me in the stands say, “Oh, he works here.” The show ends with soaking, screaming, and laughter — and then in the quiet that falls minutes later, Erin Bakey and Suzanne Morgan sit at a back pool doing relationship time, rubbing and petting two dolphins, which look up at them grinning.
I return to SeaWorld a few days later. I’ve asked Colleen Gibbs if I can watch the Dolphin Interaction Program, taking notes this time, and if I can talk to Suzanne Morgan. She arranges the interview with Morgan but tells me she doesn’t have time to go through a program with me. When she meets me that morning she says she has “policy meetings,” four of them that day. There are a lot of policy meetings, she says. I tell her that I don’t need to have her there, that I can just watch and take notes, but Gibbs says no, it’s against SeaWorld policy. I say that someone else could come with me, but Gibbs says no, it’s her project.
At the dolphin pool with Colleen Gibbs, I ask Morgan what it’s like to have the best job in the world.
“Scary,” she says. “I think, what would I do if I couldn’t do this?”
She’s a bit older than the other trainers, in her late 30s, but that’s one of the refreshing things about her, that she doesn’t fit the image of brimming youth (though Morgan is athletic like the others). “I’ll be doing this as long as I can pack it into a wet suit,” she says.
She grew up in Northern California and was fascinated with dolphins when she was a girl. She talked about them for years, she says, stories from Greek mythology, stories about dolphins rescuing fishermen. A biology professor at Chico State gave her articles on dolphin physiology. She wanted to get close to them but didn’t know how.
When she moved to San Diego and applied at SeaWorld, she got a job selling tickets. She kept wondering how she could get further into the park. When she moved to the information booth she thought, “I can tell everybody how to get everywhere, but I haven’t been in myself.” But one of her coworkers at the booth had a sister who was a killer whale trainer and gave her a brochure about careers in training. She went to an information session, then spoke with a department manager. She told her father she was going to be a trainer before she had actually applied, and he told her not to get too excited but to go for it.
At the interview they asked her what the happiest moment of her life was, and Morgan answered, “Right now. I’m this close.” Back at the booth, she sat for a week waiting and then was told she’d been transferred to animal training.
“I felt overwhelmed. The department was small and tight then, and I was like the new kid in high school. I kept wondering if I’d fit in. I met the dolphins. People were introducing me, handing me scripts. I had no performance experience. I was a cheerleader but not a performer. It was very intimidating.”
She also did sea lion and otter shows, often running between sites. Almost immediately she began to ride the dolphins. “The biggest thing I had to learn was to flow with the animals. They’re a lot bigger than people assume. You have to read body language and flow efficiently. I’d done water polo and lifeguarded through college, and I was familiar with movement in the water. You have to have what I call ‘second-nature swimming.’ When we do the hydro-hop [a jump, with a pilot whale], you use her efficiency in the water. She’s flowing one way, and you turn and go with that. There’s a tremendous vortex in the water. It’s the whale, the water, and the vortex.
“I didn’t have any idea how social they were, the scope of it. When you work one-on-one with them, it starts something in you. You want to tell everybody how special they are. You’re made aware of all issues related to the ocean — pollution, animal care, dolphin issues. It’s a big eye-opener to work this closely with them. In the beginning, just after I’d started, my husband went away for six months, and when he came back he couldn’t believe what a different person I was. I had learned so much. I was so excited.
“It affects everything you do. At home, training talk comes out. I’ll say things like ‘I’m not going to reinforce that.’ Having relationships with animals, spending a lot of time with them, you realize how fragile relationships can be. You start doing the same thing in the rest of your life, encouraging strength of relationships.
“They greet you in the morning and walk you out at night. When a dolphin comes across the pool clicking at me, I have to stop and interact with it. With new trainers, I tell them, ‘We’re their friends, their play-things, part of their social groups.’ I tell trainers, ‘You must be just as fun, just as social. Take your time developing the relationships, and be really clear with the message. Make eye contact. You have to be able to communicate clearly. The key is to spend the first three to five years being patient, trying to develop those skills. Dolphins will test new trainers to see how confident they are.
“It all goes back to the relationship. The relationship is why the animals are out there.”
While Suzanne Morgan is talking, a group taking part in the Dolphin Interaction Program arrives. They get into their wet suits and listen to Bill Hoffman, and for a while I try to listen to both Hoffman and Morgan. I hear Hoffman say, “Don’t stick your fingers in their blowholes,” but then I give up. I really want to hear what Morgan is saying.
I ask her what dolphins have to teach us.
“Patience, honesty, and a sense of humor,” she says. Then she laughs. “One thing about this job — we don’t have any reality checks. You have to interact with the animals and not have a hidden agenda. There has to be honesty—if you can’t shake something off at home, on the outside, they bring you up. They teach you how to be more lighthearted, and to breathe. Their personalities, you take them in. It’s like you want to become one of them. They teach you to be lighthearted. If you aren’t, you won’t fit in.
“I go down the freeway and look at the other cars and I think, ‘I wonder where you’re going today?’ This has been my whole adult career. I’ve never had to wear panty hose, never had to do my hair or put a face on. As a female, stereotypically you have a work wardrobe. Not here. A lot of the daily trivial things, those factors are removed.
“You become selfless working with these animals. All your energy is put into thinking, ‘What can we do for you?’ Driving in to work you’re always thinking, ‘What would they like? What would be fun for them?’ Fun is a given for us.”
The trainers socialize with each other, she says. “We tend to be cohesive. We can communicate with each other. We understand.”
Morgan leaves to get ready for the first dolphin show of the day, and Colleen Gibbs and I are left alone. The people in the Dolphin Interaction Program are in the pool, and I want to observe, but Gibbs says she has to leave for a policy meeting. I ask again if I can stay alone and Gibbs tells me again that it’s SeaWorld policy that journalists must be accompanied by a public relations employee. I ask if I can quickly go into the shed and jot down a few figures from the feeding list, but Gibbs says she has to get to the meeting. I ask if I can take a few photographs for note-taking purposes, and Gibbs says that SeaWorld will provide me with photos. But I quickly snap a half-dozen anyway.
Of the policy about journalists Gibbs says, “It’s mostly so that someone doesn’t ask someone in a store or booth about animal training.”
This seems absurd to me, especially in the context of all this trust and honesty and relationship I’ve been hearing about. I say, “This isn’t about asking questions in a store, it’s about observing something I’ve done and am going to write about. It’s about having the information to write it accurately.”
Clearly I’ve crossed a line, committed an undesirable behavior. Gibbs doesn’t say anything. She turns and walks from the pool, and I gather my things and follow her. In silence, we walk along the paths at SeaWorld. Gibbs gives hand signals to direct the way.
I’m annoyed that I’ve been given both access and inaccess, that there’s been so much control in this public relations process. I’m also feeling guilty, that I’m ungrateful for what I’ve been given. But as we walk along, as I follow one hand signal and another, guilt gives way. It seems to me, walking along, that I’ve become a kind of dolphin myself. It seems to me, with these hand signals and this silence, that I’m in a Least Reinforcing Stimulus situation, that I’m getting an extended three-second pause, though this response is slightly below neutral rather than above.
One of the reasons I wanted to come to SeaWorld was to look back upon my own experience as a dolphin trainer. I had a great job, I was working with dolphins, and those dolphins did seem happy after all — that’s the thing about dolphins that makes us love them so much: even in captivity they seem happy and still seem to love us.
But it was the control that got to me in the end — the small pool, the rigid routines, the same ridiculous tricks day after day. It was the control ultimately, the lack of freedom for those spectacular creatures, and their seeming happiness in spite of it, that made me not want to be a part of it anymore. And sometimes I thought, looking into their eyes, that they were just making the best of a bad situation. And so I moved on. Eventually the animal-rights groups, with more money and power than the couple who owned the place, hobbled it until it was no fun for them to work with dolphins anymore.
I follow the hand signals to the security trailer and shake the hand when it’s thrust out. Breaking the silence, I hear, “If you have any questions, call me.” But I’m pretty sure I won’t.