Saturday, March 9, 2013

All in the Family for "Dolphin Dad" at Hilton Waikoloa Resort

Cole Figeuria, a trainer at Dolphin Quest with a degree in psychology, didn't realize he'd be making waves when Keo gave birth to a new calf, Lehua, last September right in front of him. Lehua's birth went on YouTube, which went viral, and then did a cannonball when it aired on the edgy TV comedy, Tosh.0. (Dophin Quest globally has had nearly 30 dolphin born in their care, and 3 alone last year at Dolphin Quest Hawaii.)

Life is pretty much back to "normal," for Cole and fellow staff, including Cole's wife Alex, and a host of other dedicated young people with degrees in marine biology and other disciplines. Of course a normal day at Dolphin Quest is fantasy island for most people. Set amid the Disneyesque grounds, the swimming mammals' home is a palmy ocean pool, where visitors can sit on a shaded lawn to watch the splash-filled encounters and also look in on day-to-day family stuff, like feeding time. Several times each day, human families and kids get in the pool with their personal trainer and have face time with dolphins---an encounter usually lasting 45 minutes, but participants report memories that last a lifetime and a new connection with the natural world.

Dolphin Quest also has a facility at the Kahala Resort on Oahu, and in Bermuda. The dolphins don't slap beach balls around or do “tricks”, but rather exhibit interactive behaviors that showcase their natural abilities. DQ is known for participating in a variety of research projects that range from newborn dolphin development and growth, sample collection, and funding research grants for universities and affiliated organizations involving marine mammals in the wild.

Cole is currently training one of the older females (Iwa, 42) who sporadically shows signs of vision loss. As a preventative measure, he is teaching a new protocol that would help staff to maintain her high level of health care if she were to lose her vision. The new program involves Iwa responding exclusively to touch commands on her body so that she will be able to communicate and work with the trainer. The pink cup on Cole's shoulder is used to temporarily block vision in Iwa's good eye to simulate blindness and condition her to respond to the new tactile stimuli.

It's tempting to adopt a "Free Willy" attitude and lament that DQ's mammals are not frolicking in the open sea. Cole and others completed an expansion to their saltwater pools. But when they opened the gate, none of the mammals wanted to go through, and days of reinforced trials were needed to get a few to move to the new world. The casual observer might be entertained by the big "fish" swimming with people, but a closer look reveals a lot of love among fellow mammals going on below the surface.