DIVING WITH TAME DOLPHINS
© Ian Robertson, 2006

Anne and her dolphin friends
A particularly talented, petite diver and lifelong friend, Anne, had moved to Port Elizabeth in South Africa. She was particularly good with animals, bred Siamese cats, and inevitably charmed her way into the dolphin tank at the Port Elizabeth Oceanarium. The dolphins immediately took to her and she developed a particularly close bond with one of them, Haig. Anne is a very graceful diver who loves to use the dolphin kick and this, I’m sure, contributed to her success.

Gill and I visited Anne and her husband, Chris, in February 1967, and we had our first opportunity to dive with the dolphins with Chris. It was fabulous to join the two female bottlenosed dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), Haig and Dimple, in their own environment but they seemed coy. I discussed this with Anne that evening and she said it was because we were strangers; it was a matter of breaking the ice. Anne decided not to join us on the dive next day, as she would probably distract the dolphins from their new visitors. Instead, she briefed me on how to get the dolphins’ attention.

Dolphins performing at the Port Elizabeth Dolphinarium - dolphins are natural showoffs

Anne and Haig - Port Elizabeth press photo

Breaking the Ice
Gill and I slipped into the water of the Oceanarium the next morning between performances. The dolphins flashed past us, as before, but ignored us. Following Anne’s advice, I sank to the bottom at the centre of the tank, turned head-down with arm extended and balanced on my finger and waited…..and waited. I looked around and saw an inverted view of windows set in the walls of the tank with kids looking in, steaming up the glass, and pointing at me. I began to feel foolish. A dolphin flashed past - it wasn’t working. Was this just Anne’s warped sense of humour? I decided to persist – what the hell. Another dolphin flashed past. Gradually it dawned on me that the kids were not pointing at me, but behind me. I felt I was being watched. I rotated very slowly on my finger and saw Haig, inverted and mimicking me, only a metre away, bright eyed and smiling. I rolled over and she was off but was soon back, and allowed me to pat and stroke her. Using the dolphin kick, like her, paid dividends. It was a lovely dive.

Dolphin Dimple against the sun

Haig smiles as Anne tickles her chin

A new dolphin
I was back two years later. There was an additional dolphin in the tank, Daan, a male. This had altered the social dynamics a little. This time, I joined Anne and watched the excited dolphins competing for Anne’s attention, towing her around the pool, rolling and cavorting. It was fascinating to watch this interaction and the obvious affection between dolphins and diver – the pictures say it all! As predicted, in Anne’s presence, Haig and Dimple ignored me; Daan was wary. However, I managed a few nice pictures, one was a silhouette of Dimple.

Daan inspects the photographer - caution and suspicion

Anne takes a ride with Haig

Bluff and counterbluff
The next dolphin dive was three weeks later, this time with Jackie, who had never dived with dolphins before. With Daan there, Anne warned me, there might be an attempt to intimidate us - she briefed me on how to counter this. True to form, I was faced with Haig, with mouth agape, lined with many quite sharp teeth. Trustingly, I placed my wet-suited forearm, sideways on, in her mouth. There was no attempt to bite. Haig backed off, mouth still open, realising I had called her bluff, but the dolphins continued to hassle Jackie, who was freaked by this aggressive display and the dolphins easily interpreted her body-language, pressing their advantage.

An intimate moment between Anne and Haig

Haig plays dead and gets a tummy-tickle

Haig was in a fantastic mood, she allowed me to tickle her face and pectoral fins and hold her gently by the tail or dorsal fin and she took me for a short ride, flicking me off effortlessly when she had had enough. Then she sank to the bottom of the pool and pretended dead. In this dolphin game I had to swim down, put my arms around her and bring her to the surface to breathe, when she would be off. It was hard work handling the sheer mass of a 200 kg dolphin. Diving with them was exhausting and I chewed through the air with incessant rolls, flicks and turns to keep in the game.

More fuss and affection
Daan hassles Jackie - who is 'not amused'

Conclusions on captivity
The ethics of keeping dolphins in captivity is debatable. Some assume the high moral ground in opposing them giving performances. Showing off and having fun is part of their very nature, even in the wild, and captive dolphins seem to enjoy performing. Confining them to a tank, however large, and exposing them to the health risks of contamination of the water by their own faeces, however efficient the filtration system, is a minus. However, this gave me a unique opportunity to interact with such gentle, affectionate, highly intelligent animals - an unforgettable experience. Thanks forever, Haig, Dimple, Daan and of course Anne.

Photography with a Nikonos I

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