I’ll admit I was rather sceptical about the whole thing. It’s not that I don’t like dolphins – I’ll be the first to profess my wonder at these sociable, friendly, ‘cats of the sea’ – but there was something about the ‘interactions’ at Dolphin Bay in Aquaventure on The Palm that made me feel a bit weird.
You see, before heading down there, Atlantis sent a few promo pics that show beaming, wetsuit-ed sorts frolicking with ‘smiling’ dolphins in a lagoon. In one unbelievable shot, somebody kisses one of the dolphins in the face. I suppose my horror probably came out of snobbishness: We might happily kiss a pet, but because of our reverence for these creatures and for the sea, when we see somebody kissing one on the face, we can’t help but think: that just ain’t right.
But I decided to put aside these prejudices and head down there to see if it is quite as bizarre as it seems. There’s no doubt that Dolphin Bay is an incredible set-up. Not only is this a 4.5 hectare network of saltwater lagoons, with changeable layouts to keep the dolphins stimulated, but there’s an on-site laboratory to monitor their wellbeing.
At the moment, Dolphin Bay is only running ‘shallow water interactions’, so forget any ideas of hurtling majestically through deep water, gripping onto a dorsal fin. But you do get closer to these incredible mammals than you could imagine, actually stepping into their environment and allowing them the freedom to come to you as they feel comfortable.
As we’re led past the lagoons, to be measured for wetsuits, the occasional rise of a fin can be seen on the surface of the water. The handlers chuck the occasional hunk of fish into the water and there’s an atmosphere of serenity.
Kitted out, we’re led into a small cinema for an induction video, followed by a quick talk from one of the head marine mammal specialists (explicitly not a ‘dolphin trainer’). He points out the various parts of the bottlenose dolphin as they flash up on the screen: the pectoral fins, the dorsal fin, the tiny ears and the blowhole just above the dolphin’s ‘melon’ (forehead). ‘Contrary to what a lot of people think, the whistling and laughing sounds that dolphins make don’t come from their mouths,’ he explains. ‘It all comes from the blowhole – you’ll see how it moves as they breathe.’ He tells us that when we hear the word safety, we have to adopt a peaceful stance, with our hands crossed over our chests.
They let five of us loose on Lexi (the maximum is 10 per dolphin), a friendly bottlenose that adopts a waving splashing motion with its fin as we approach. Darn, this is cutesy.
We wade into the chilly water to meet the dolphin and find Roscoe Dickenson, director of marine mammal operations, dancing his fingers back and forth in front of Lexi, who yips merrily in time with his movements. To get acquainted, we’re told to kneel with our hands out, and allow Lexi to glide under our outstretched hands. As she passes beneath us, the majesty of a dolphin’s movement is obvious. I’ve seen dolphins before, but to have one of these incredible creatures slowly passing its body against your fingers really is something else and, amazingly, she rolls to allow us to see her belly on the way back. One of the specialists shouts, ‘What does she feel like?’ But my answer of ‘a fish’ is met with jovial disapproval. ‘These are mammals,’ says Roscoe. Even Lexi snorts her blowhole at me. I feel shamed.
In fact, the whole experience serves as a bit of a revelation. What had seemed so bizarre before now appears completely natural, when faced with these unbelievably sociable and spirited animals. The sense of peace, the respect that oozes from the marine specialists towards the dolphins, puts you at ease and it no longer feels like you’re intruding on their turf.
So, after cradling Lexi and, yes, even giving her a quick smacker on the nose, I’ve forgotten all cynicism. When Roscoe shouts, ‘Who’s ready to dance’, an affirmative yelp jumps out of me. I find myself swaying as Lexi hoists herself high in the water and kicks her fin to a chorus of ‘Macho Man’.
There’s no doubt that this is an expensive 30 minutes in the water, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And we’re excited to hear that Dolphin Bay will start deep-water interactions in the next few months. But for now this remains a definite eye-opener and a relaxing cure for any sceptic.
Dolphin Bay (04 426 1030) is part of Aquaventure at Atlantis, The Palm. A 90-minute shallow-water interaction session is Dhs625 for Atlantis guests and Dhs845 for non-guests. Price includes day entry to Aquaventure. www.atlantisthepalm.com