Curacao: Animal Encounters of the Best Kind by Fyllis Hockman

Their bodies were sleek and graceful, the skin soft to the touch, their demeanor welcoming even if a bit skeptical. Still, they were more used to this than I was. But I spread my arms out as instructed and flapped them in the water. Annie and DeeDee, my dolphin snorkeling companions, then swam under my outstretched limbs, and as I grasped on to their dorsal fins, they took me on a wild water-park ride, the likes of which I’ll never forget. Such is one of the many highlights at the Dolphin Academy, one of several up-front-and-personal animal encounters available at the Sea Aquarium on the Caribbean island of Curacao.

Now I don’t usually like watching animals perform tricks that are alien to their DNA for the amusement of tourists, but at the Dolphin Academy, the residents are treated with such loving care, I swam alongside them with minimal guilt. According to trainer Yvette, the dolphins are the first priority. “They are on a very light work schedule and every day, it varies. Like humans, they react better when their life is not all that predictable. And if for any reason they don’t want to perform — perhaps they’re preoccupied with a personal family situation (I didn’t pursue that) — the program is called off.”

And once I found out that both Annie and DeeDee were pregnant, I chose to think of our swim together as a pre-natal exercise program. Prior to the snorkel, Yvette instructed us on how to proceed: be patient; let them come to you; stroke them along their flanks. She taught us how to encourage the dolphin to come alongside and then free dive in unison. Annie and I shared a number of shallow dives together, and in parting she gave me a kiss. Okay, so she did it because she got a fish, but still I thought she was actually smiling at me at the time — and in recent Sarah Palin tradition, I’m pretty sure she winked.
Dafne Greeven, a dive instructor from The Hague, Netherlands, said she had seen dolphin in the ocean, but had never interacted with them. “Most animal encounters are much more commercial,” she observed. “Snorkeling with them was a very special, personal experience. It was wonderful to see how well they treat the dolphins here and encourage us to be relaxed so that the dolphins will be.”

The snorkel exercise is one of six interactive programs conducted at the Academy. Other options include standing with, swimming with and diving with — plus two multi-day programs where participants actually work alongside the trainers. The Dolphin Academy, like the other animal encounter offerings at the Sea Aquarium, is one of the very few — if not the only — such program in the world. And it was only the start of my very personal connection with sea life in Curacao. My next encounter took me even further underwater — my first dive. I again received basic information on how to use the equipment. There were so many hoses, gadgets and gauges — and the many things that could go wrong with any of them — that the simple act of when and how to breathe took on a life of its own. The equipment was more intimidating than the sharks I was later to encounter. It reminded me of the fine print that comes with a bottle of aspirin: if you were to actually read it you would never take the pill.
But I now know why divers are as fanatic as they are. When you snorkel, you’re an observer; when you dive, you’re part of the experience. I was surrounded by dozens of fish of multiple hues, plus sting rays, grouper and tarpon. And I was feeding them all squiggly little sardines while at the same time making meaningful eye contact. Well, meaningful to me anyway. Since the experience was billed as the only place in the world where first-time divers can swim with and feed fish, huge loggerhead turtles, and sharks, I wasn’t really surprised to find those turtles and sharks behind a Plexiglas shield and fed through small holes in the glass. Still. the shark didn’t look any less menacing for being behind protective covering.
Back on land, my next animal rendezvous was of a more playful nature. I got to meet and greet Corey, the sea lion. Again, there are multiple ways to interact. There’s a land option where you get to spend some personal time, a snorkel program, and an open ocean get-together involving a dive along a reef with the sea lions in their native habitat. You may notice a pattern here but it is the only dive of its kind in the world. I learned the difference between sea lions and seals and watched Corey do a seal imitation as he flopped along on his belly. Sea lions are much more genteel when they move — they walk on all fours. Using flippers, of course, but still… Corey had a bit to say during our tete-a-tete, but his vocalization, unfortunately, resembled a very loud, deep belch that tended to continue long after it was socially acceptable to do so. But still he was very cute — and, like Annie, very affectionate. Yup, I got another kiss. Between the two, I got more action that weekend than I remember occurring at the height of my dating career.
A visit to a nearby ostrich farm left me less enamored with animals in captivity. I found it a little sad — not to mention ironic — that they were pushing ostrich meat in the restaurant because it’s low in cholesterol; and even more disturbed to discover that most of the young end up on the menu.

Ostriches are a lot more aggressive than dolphins. In an effort to illustrate the warning dance they do when provoked, our guide Alexander poked and prodded one male ostrich in a very threatening way that made me very uncomfortable, along with the ostrich. Clearly a philosophy very much at odds with the approach adopted by the Dolphin Academy which emphasizes the well-being of the dolphin over that of entertaining the consumer.
Let’s just say ostriches are not nearly as endearing as dolphins and sea lions. And while I chose not to partake of their meat in the restaurant, I did feel a little guilty at lunch following the dolphin swim eating a fried fish sandwich.

There are, of course, other more mundane opportunities to interact with animals on the island, in addition to the excellent diving and snorkeling for which the island is known. These include horseback riding, a butterfly farm, viewing bats hanging out in caves, lots of bird and lizards, and if you are so tempted, a visit to Jaanchie Restaurant. Here an iquana, a relative of whom I had just seen scurrying across my path on a hike, showed up instead in a stew. According to chef and owner, Jaanchie, it may “taste like chicken but it acts like Viagra.” Ha! At least the iguana had more to tempt some to eat it than the ostrich meat.