Sea Life Park program can be life-changing
Poliahu didn't act like she was pregnant.
She did a lively hula, performed graceful acrobatics, even jumped several feet in the air to the delight of her playmates, Kathy Kahn and her daughters, 15-year-old Stephanie and 9-year-old Emma Chao.
Sea Life Park by Dolphin Discovery
Address: 41-202 Kalanianaole Highway, Makapuu, Oahu
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except on luau nights (see package sidebar)
General admission: $31.20 for adults and $24.95 for ages 4 to 12. Kamaaina rates are $15.62 and $12.50, respectively.
Web site: www.sealifeparkhawaii.com
Notes: Optional interactive activities, which include park admission, are Dolphin Discovery Swim, Dolphin Swim Adventure, Sea Lion Discovery Swim, Hawaiian Ray Encounter, Sea Trek Adventure and Sea Life Discovery Interactive Program. Kamaaina prices range from $26.56 to $113.54 for adults and $23.96 to $101.56 for children. Age and height restrictions apply. Call the park for details. Annual kamaaina passes allow unlimited general admission to the park, at $36.46 per person. Regular kamaaina rates apply on the first visit. All prices include Hawaii state tax.
Dolphin Lu-Wow Package
The three-hour Sea Life Luau is offered at 6 p.m. nightly, except Tuesdays and Saturdays. The cost is $83.33 for adults, $50 for ages 4 to 12, and free for 3 and younger. Kamaaina rates are $58.33 and $35.42, respectively.
Those who book the Dolphin Lu-Wow package receive round-trip transportation between the park and select Waikiki locations (pickup times begin at 11:45 a.m.), park and luau admission, a Dolphin Swim Adventure, penguin presentation and talk, dolphin show, sunset Hawaiian entertainment, two standard drinks and flower lei greeting. Cost is $238 for adults, $186 for ages 8 to 12, and $50 for ages 7 and younger (excludes the Dolphin Swim Adventure). Call 259-7933 for reservations.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the three visitors from Seattle were a bit nervous when they entered the pool at Sea Life Park by Dolphin Discovery for their Dolphin Swim Adventure with Poliahu. Within a few minutes, however, the 15-year-old, 500-pound Atlantic bottlenose dolphin -- due to give birth to her second baby in January -- completely charmed them.
During the half-hour session, Kahn, Stephanie and Emma got up close and personal with Poliahu, who happily gave each of her new friends a kiss and a speedy ride across the pool, her pectoral fins serving as great grips.
All smiles afterward, Stephanie declared, "That was really fun! I'd definitely do it again!"
It's a sentiment that Sea Life Park's staff hears every day. In fact, many visitors come to the acclaimed marine attraction just to meet the dolphins.
Dolphin Discovery opened its first facility on Isla Mujeres, a beautiful island 20 minutes by boat from Cancun, in 1994. Headquartered in Cancun, it now operates seven marine parks in Mexico, Hawaii, the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla in the West Indies.
Since Dolphin Discovery purchased and began operating Sea Life Park in January 2005, it has increased both the number and type of interactive offerings. This summer, up to 400 visitors per day have been enjoying them. Although there are programs that feature sea lions and stingrays, the ones involving dolphins are the most popular, drawing about 80 percent of the participants.
"We believe interactive activities are powerful and effective tools to promote our conservation and education messages in the most entertaining way -- education can be fun," said Renato Lenzi, general manager of Sea Life Park, who holds a doctorate in marine biology.
"The psychology is simple: If you've interacted with Poliahu, you're going to be much more inclined to help her and her cousins who live in the ocean than if you were just told, 'If you want to protect the dolphins, you should do this and this.'"
The park's 24 dolphins, including Kekaimalu and her daughter Kawili Kai (the world's only two known "wholphins," a cross between a dolphin and a false killer whale), all participate in the hands-on encounters.
For those who might wonder if exposing them to such close human contact on a regular basis is a good thing, Lenzi says, "Dolphins are sociable creatures that share a lot of things with us, including their enjoyment of physical contact. I've observed dolphins both in the wild and at facilities like Sea Life Park, and noticed they touch each other often with their pectoral flippers and body.
It's an important element of their way of life, and interacting with people is really a positive experience for them."
SEA LIFE PARK BY DOLPHIN DISCOVERY
Trainers from Dolphin Discovery offer several programs introducing Sea Life Park attendees to the wonders of the ocean, with upclose encounters with many sea creatures.
DURING THE SESSIONS, the trainer creates a series of fun, interesting activities for the dolphin and the guests. No two encounters are exactly alike.
"We don't want the sessions to be predictable," Lenzi explains. "Our goal is to maintain the level of excitement, so the dolphins are highly motivated to participate. Their main focus is the trainer; they're thinking, 'What are we going to do next? What game are we going to play now?' They regard the encounters as playtime; they really look forward to them."
Lenzi acknowledges the success of the park is largely due to the success of the interactive programs, and he hopes to increase these offerings in the future.
"The more people we reach through our interactive programs, the more we comply with our conservation mission," he notes.
Lenzi recalls a mainland fisherman in his mid-60s who recently participated in the Dolphin Discovery Swim. "He was in tears afterward because he had killed many dolphins on his fishing expeditions; he considered them to be predators, competing for the fish that were his livelihood.
"He said he never realized how remarkable dolphins are until he went in the water with them at Sea Life Park. It was a life-changing experience for him. He couldn't change what he had done in the past, but from that day on, he made a commitment to protect them.
"Stories like that happen every day here. Our goal is to provide memorable experiences that will forever change the way our guests view and interact with the marine environment and the incredible creatures that live there."
SEA LIFE PARK BY DOLPHIN DISCOVERY
A dolphin interactive program is one of the most popular of Sea Life Park by Dolphin Discovery's offerings.
» Dolphins use echolocation in a way similar to submariners' use of sonar systems. Through its forehead, the dolphin uses sound waves, which bounce off objects and are received through an oil-filled canal in the dolphin's lower jaw, transmitting the sounds through its inner ear. In this way a dolphin can determine the object's size, shape, density and distance.
» Dolphins in the wild live 18 to 25 years, but a dolphin living under human care might live well into its 40s due to an abundance of quality food, veterinary care and reduced environmental stress.
» Dolphins breathe through a blowhole an average of two times per minute. They can hold their breath for up to eight minutes.
» The dolphin's tail serves as a motor. It enables the dolphin to swim up to 25 mph for short distances. The dorsal fin acts like a keel on a boat for stability. It is unique in the same way each fingerprint is unique.
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.