It has been said that dolphins are more intelligent than humans. I can now confirm that it’s true. Here we are, a bunch of fully evolved, top-of-the-food-chain homo sapiens, and yet we are struggling to meet the request to form a straight line. Meanwhile, there’s a dolphin a metre in front of us dancing, fetching a ball and doing the ‘moonwalk’ in response to the subtlest signal from its trainer.
Most of us know that dolphins are mammals, but did you know that they have hair when they are born? And their fins are the dolphin equivalent to fingerprints? No two are the same. Sat in the briefing room at Dolphin Bay, Atlantis, a couple of friendly instructors are telling the large group, predominantly made up of parents and excitable youngsters, these interesting facts about dolphins and how to treat them. Minute by minute I become more convinced that one day, dolphins will take over the world.
At first I was concerned for the friendly creatures, with repeated warnings from the instructors not to poke the dolphins in the blowhole (parents know better than anyone how much kids like to stick their pudgy little fingers into places they shouldn’t). But I’ve come to the conclusion that this is not because their digits would block the dolphin’s breathing passage, but because Flipper the fraudster would take a scan of the kiddiewink’s finger, store it in a microchip held in his fin, and steal that child’s identity when D Day – that’s Dolphin Day to you and me – arrives.
The plot thickens, as seemingly sensible adults suddenly digress to having the mental age of a child. I am mildly concerned when one father smooches all over our dolphin Black’s nose making squeaky kissy noises; that concern raises to high alert later, when the poor dolphin swims past us on his back and another dad points at Black’s private parts and giggles, ‘What’s that?’ It seems dolphins have some kind of power that turns grown men into silly boys (although most women would argue there’s no change there). Even I become a victim of Black’s spell: when asked to clap on the count of three, I clap at the wrong time – three times. Oh dear.
However, no matter how much entertainment us bumbling humans are providing the dolphins in all this, there’s no doubt Black and his friends are the stars of the show. Black swims past us obligingly to allow us to feel his skin – which is soft and almost plastic-like – then lets us kiss and hug him, dances with us and shows us tricks.
Instructors use a reward system, treating the dolphins when they do well and, rather than punishing, simply ignoring bad behaviour. They assure us this works, so perhaps it’s one to remember next time your toddler throws a hissy fit.
Of course, we cannot and will not avoid the ethical question of domesticated dolphins, made to perform day in, day out. It seems, though, that the instructors genuinely love the animals they care for. They are fed regularly and have a 4.5-hectare pool to swim in – but let’s face it, when compared to the space they have in the ocean, nothing will ever be large enough.
At least they must be well-paid dolphins, as this is not a cheap experience. Already at a steep Dhs845 per person, if you want a photo of your encounter to treasure (you can bring your own camera but cannot take it into the water), be prepared to fork out Dhs150 for two prints, or a whopping Dhs1,000+ for packages including posters. Another tip: arrive with your swimming gear on, as, strangely, there are no changing rooms, just a small communal area (men and women’s are separate), and be warned, the wetsuits are pretty tight and unflattering. Another slight grievance is, particularly if you go in high season (the cooler winter months and school holidays), you will likely be in a big group, so there is a lot of waiting for your turn for time with the dolphin.
But these are minor quibbles over a very memorable experience, which the sweet, friendly and clever dolphins make worthwhile. Maybe it won’t be such a bad thing if Black and his pals take over the world after all.
Dolphin Bay at Atlantis, The Palm Jumeirah (04 426 1030). Open 10am-sunset daily. Cost of shallow water interaction Dhs845 for visitors; Dhs625 for Atlantis guests (same price for adults and children). Dolphin Bay observer pass Dhs385 (adult), Dhs320 (children aged three-seven) for visitors; Dhs100 for Atlantis guests (for adults and children). All prices include entry to Aquaventure and the private beach.