The word ‘trial’ can be intimidating. Think about it: ‘a trial period’ is something that can go either way. This is why I find it hard to sleep the night before my scheduled dive with dolphins at Atlantis’s Dolphin Bay: the experience is labelled a ‘trial’ because it is on the brink of being opened to the public, but is still being ‘trialled’ with selected divers before the launch. I have visions of being encircled by a full pod of porpoise, after being informed of rumours that a) dolphins have been known to attack sharks (in self-defense), and b) that dolphins can allegedly pick up on a human’s good or bad energy. In short, I’m somewhat apprehensive.
Fortunately, on arrival at Dolphin Bay (tip: taxi drivers and even Atlantis doormen will direct you to the wrong drop-off – in reality, it’s located past the resort at the third roundabout), I’m greeted by several friendly dolphin specialists from all over: Italy, Cuba, South Africa and Angola, as well as one of my friends (I need someone to pull in front of me should the dolphins see my ‘bad vibes’). After hauling on a shorty wetsuit and vest, we regroup in a training room, where we’re thoroughly briefed on how the dolphins are trained – via a ‘no punishment’ strategy, in which the dolphins are ignored if they do something wrong, and treated when they do well – as well as a run-through of what we’ll be doing in the water. Finally, we’re told how to evacuate in the unlikely event that something should go wrong. Gulp.
We waddle outside and find our diving gear laid out, before having it hauled onto our backs for us – part of the real five-star dive experience. All that’s left to do is wade into the surprisingly chilly 25°C water – kept cooler for the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins – and kneel on the bottom, a mere 3m down. Fortunately, we’re diving with just the one dolphin: six-year-old Sol, who has thus far remained obediently beside his Portuguese trainer, Fabio, allowing us to get accustomed to the water. Once settled, we kneel in line and hold out our right hands, which Sol then glides beneath, allowing us to feel his fantastically smooth skin. Already the nerves are gone; it’s clear this animal is incredibly well trained, and all we have to do is enjoy the ride. Next up, I’m invited to hold out my left hand so Sol can slide up and plant a ‘kiss’ on – or rather, touch his ‘mouth’ to – my left cheek. Yes, posing like this in front of the underwater camera may feel slightly forced, but it’s hard not to think of it as Facebook gold.
Following the kiss, I work backwards to a hug, for which I hold my right hand out at waist height and allow Sol to slide his belly onto it, before sealing the deal with my left arm over the top of him. Next up, and the true highlight of the experience, is the ‘ride’. I hold out my left hand, into which Sol directs his fin. I then bring my right hand round, and before I know it I’m floating along, being pulled by a dolphin. Surreal doesn’t come close.
After all his good behaviour, Sol receives a fish treat from each of us and the chance to flash his many teeth, before we all have one last stroke. As the grand finale, he’s then instructed to reveal his true swimming capabilities, and shoots across the pool doing dives and flips at around 35kph – emphasising again how well trained and restrained these creatures at Atlantis truly are.
Floating back up to the surface, the pool’s gradients enable us to simply walk out of the water, rather than having to lug our heavy dive gear up any stairs. At 25 minutes, the session length felt just right (I was shivering after 15). ‘That was one of the best experiences of my life,’ my friend gasps. ‘I want to retrain as a marine biologist.’ I’m similarly buzzed from the session, which, without even noticing, I’ve stopped referring to as a ‘trial’.
Official sessions start on September 5, set to last 40 minutes for up to six people. Prices from Dhs1,550 for non-hotel guests. Dolphin Bay, Atlantis, www.atlantisthepalm.com (04 426 1030)