By Susan ScottMonday, July 26, 1999
LAST week, I took my 9-year-old niece and 10-year-old nephew to Sea Life Park's Splash University, a program where people get a hands-on experience with some of the park's trained dolphins.
Kids can learn about
dolphins at Splash U
It's a program I knew almost nothing about, so when the kids badgered me with questions about what was going to happen, I just shrugged and said, "We'll find out soon."
My first surprise was where the program takes place. I imagined a makeshift area at Whaler's Cove. And my niece thought she might have to swim in the deep water of the dolphin Oceanarium. Neither of us was right.
At the park entrance, about 20 of us, half participants, half observers, were guided to a part of the park specially built for Splash U. This area is new, attractive and has a professional air to it. Walking into this enclosure gave me the immediate impression that these dolphins are loved and well cared for.
And it's not just the spiffy grounds that convey this well-tended message. The dolphins themselves, milling about the pool when we entered, seemed overjoyed to see their trainers coming with another group of people to play with.
The participants, divided into groups of three and four, descended several steps to an underwater platform, where they learned about dolphin training from individual trainers.
Dolphin trainers use a method of teaching called operant conditioning. Using this strategy, the trainer ignores behaviors they don't want the animal to do, and rewards the ones they do want. Cues are hand signals and whistle chirps. Rewards are fish and strokes of affection.
Splash U participants learned some hand signals and soon, they were commanding the dolphins to jump, talk and spin.
After each behavior was successfully completed, the dolphin rushed back to the steps to receive a treat. After getting a fish, when cued by the trainer, the dolphin rolled over for a belly pat or a fluke rub.
THE only part of Splash U. I found hard to take was the cost. The fee for the hour-long session is $61 for kama'aina kids under 13. This includes the child's park entry fee of $6.25 but doesn't include the accompanying adult's fee of $12.50 (all these prices are higher for nonresidents). And then there are the pictures.
A park photographer shoots a close-up of each participant holding the chin of the dolphin. This is great except that these absolutely irresistible 8 by 10 pictures are $25 each. Add lunch to that, multiply by two kids and ... well, you've spent a bundle.
After the session, I asked the kids what they thought.
"Their skin feels like rubber!" one told me. "Yeah," the other said. "It's real hard."
"But what did you think of the whole experience?" I asked.
"It was too short," one said, surprising me.
"Yeah," the other added. "Way too short."
I took that to mean they loved it.
Later, as I listened to them tell others about the experience, it struck me that that one intense hour may have sparked a lifetime interest or even a career path for one or both of these kids. At the very least, they will always remember those fanny packs full of fish and the feel of a dolphin's skin.
And of course, already I treasure those big, glossy pictures of the kids with their dolphins, all grinning in the bright Hawaii sun.
Yes, Splash U is pricey. But there's probably nothing better we can buy the children we love than a memorable wildlife experience.
Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.