Interactive Dolphin Program Debuts

The Southampton Princess unveiled an interactive Dolphin program available exclusively to its guests. Senior editor Felicity Long participated in one of the first sessions. Her report follows:

Reed Travel Features

SOUTHAMPTON -- Having enjoyed an up-close-and-personal encounter with a handful of dolphins recently in Bermuda, I now am in a position to answer the two most frequently asked questions in an unofficial poll of friends and family: Yes, they feel like rubber and, yes, they smile like Flipper.

But because dolphin interactive programs have come under fire during the past few years due to concerns about possible dangers to the animals, more serious questions came to the surface as we set off to the beach on a recent December day to meet and greet our marine mammal friends.

Upon arrival at the check-in area next to the Southampton Princess tennis courts, we were introduced to the director of animal training, David Gossman, who promptly put our fears to rest.

For one thing, the program is not run by the hotel but by Dolphin Quest, which is a conservation organization founded by marine mammal veterinarians who specialize in fostering appreciation of dolphins. The organization operates the dolphin encounters, cares for the animals and maintains the habitat.

Two other Dolphin Quest programs are in operation: at the Hilton Waikoloa Village in Hawaii and at the Moorea Beachcomber Park-Royal in French Polynesia.

The first misconception that Gossman dispelled is probably the most important for agents to tell interested clients before selling them a Dolphin Quest package: Here, guests do not swim with the dolphins.

What Dolphin Quest does offer, however, is something much better. Guests can touch and play with the animals in a controlled environment that is both fun for humans and safe for the dolphins.

The dolphin habitat, which cost $1.6 million and measures more than three acres, is one of the largest natural dolphin facilities in the world.

The dolphins could leave the habitat if they wanted to. They are not in a pen or a cage but rather in a natural coral cove.

Because of the nurturing and care they receive at the habitat, they choose to stay.

There are seven bottlenose dolphins in the habitat, all of which had just arrived from various locations in the U.S., and they are fully expected to reproduce, according to Gossman.

Our encounter began with a few of us sitting on a dock and putting our feet in the water. Immediately, the dolphins approached and began playing with our toes.

Much has been written about dolphins' abilities to help children with disabilities, and according to the trainers, this is because dolphins are attracted to the unpredictability of all children.

Ironically, swimming is seen by the animals as an aggressive behavior, according to our guides, and can result in unpredictable or even dangerous reactions from them.

This is important when you consider that, although friendly, dolphins weigh up to 500 pounds.

After getting to know our toes, the dolphins allowed us to hold their snouts and rub their heads and sides.

In order for the hotel to manage the flow of interested participants, guests must preregister for the Dolphin Quest program by booking a Royal Dolphin package.

A limited number of additional participants will be selected by daily lottery.

The program is open to anyone 5 years old and up and is available year-round.

As we reluctantly left the dolphins after our encounter, we had another question answered to our satisfaction.

Yes, dolphins do make that chattering sound.

We were all gratified to hear them chattering in an indignant chorus when they saw us walking away.

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