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Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, April 17, 2000

Dolphins relish play
with humans

IMAGINE that several times each day you and several dog-loving friends spend an hour or so playing with your remarkably bright dogs. This play would include all of the dogs' favorite activities, such as fetch, having their heads and bellies rubbed, learning new tricks and eating doggy treats.

For both dog lovers and dogs, such scheduled, personal time together would be pure pleasure. And that's exactly what it looks like for the dolphins, trainers and guests of Hawaii's Dolphin Quest programs.

Dolphin Quest is the 1980s brainchild of two mainland veterinarians who worked with dolphins in marine parks. After seeing how much people loved watching dolphin shows, the doctors wanted to educate people in a more personal way. And so, the hands-on Dolphin Quest program was born.

In Dolphin Quest, people with no experience can pet, feed and play with tame dolphins. I recently watched this interaction at Hawaii's two Dolphin Quest sites -- one at the Big Island's Hilton Waikoloa Village and the other at Oahu's Kahala Mandarin Oriental Hotel -- and left both places feeling good. This was inevitable because everyone in the program seemed to be having a wonderful time. All the smiles, including those of the dolphins, looked genuine.

The Dolphin Quest program at the Waikoloa is 11 years old; the program in Kahala was launched just a few weeks ago. Both sites feature only dolphins born at the Waikoloa or Oahu's Sea Life Park. Together, these three facilities are working on a breeding program designed to mix the dolphins' genes as much as possible.

ALL of the Dolphin Quest animals are bottlenose dolphins, a species that adapts to captivity so easily scientists view them as the white rats of marine mammal research. Much of what we know about dolphin biology and behavior comes from studying these friendly, playful dolphins.

And it's not just park dolphins that are friendly. In the wild, bottlenose dolphins bodysurf big waves, hitch rides on the bow waves of boats and sometimes, as in the case of Australia's Monkey Mia beach, swim into knee-deep water specifically to visit humans.

There is no doubt Hawaii's Dolphin Quest animals love to play with people. Early one morning, I watched the Waikoloa dolphins snoozing in their pool, barely moving. Then the trainers stepped onto the beach and instantly the quiet time was over. The dolphins frolicked gleefully with trainers and guests for as long as the people were there.

During the day, each dolphin gets several rest periods in pools adjacent to the big one used by trainers, guests and other dolphins. But just like toddlers, the animals don't want to nap. I watched two "resting" dolphins repeatedly stick their snouts in the underwater gate of their pool and lift in efforts to open the door. When that didn't work, they impatiently bobbed up to see what was going on.

Some animal advocates have expressed concern about keeping these dolphins in captivity and forcing them to play with people. But force is not only impossible, it's unnecessary. Like our pet dogs, which also have wild ancestors, these domesticated dolphins want to play with people. As such, these tame marine mammals make excellent ambassadors for their wild counterparts.

A close encounter with these smart, sociable animals is an experience of a lifetime.

For information about Dolphin Quest call 739-8918 on Oahu and 808-886-2875 on the Big Isle. You don't have to be a hotel guest to participate in Dolphin Quest; the staffs are friendly and helpful to all comers.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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