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. Romeo and Paski, two of my dolphin snorkeling companions, then swam under my outstretched limbs, and we laid back into the water as though sunbathing. Then we went back to free swim.
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.” As if on cue, a participant related a past experience in which Dolphins used to give rides to people holding on to their fins. Nope, not any more — it was determined that it was too damaging to their dorsal fins and the dolphins didn’t like it so it was stopped years ago. I nodded; point well taken…one point for the dolphins.
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. Romeo and I shared a number of shallow dives together and in parting he gave me a kiss. Okay, so he did it because he got a fish but still I thought he was actually smiling at me at the time.
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.”
And it was only the start of my very personal connection with sea life in Curacao. My next encounter took me even further underwater. I’ve been snorkeling before — but never in the past did the fish swarm to me rather than my having to swim out to them. But then again I don’t usually carry a supply of squiggly little sardines with me when I go, while at the same time making meaningful eye contact. Well, meaningful to me anyway.
But at the Animal Encounters experience getting up close and personal with a variety of denizens of the deep is the whole purpose. So there I was co-mingling with tarpon, common snook, French grunts, permit fish, horse-eyed jack and so many sting rays that I felt covered most of the time by a soft lightweight blanket caressing my body — only this blanket wanted to be fed fish which it ate with its underbelly.
I wasn’t really surprised to find the huge loggerhead 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. I carefully followed the instructions on when to feed them directly and when to take better care of my fingers. There’s not always a second chance to do that with a shark…
Herbie, the 400-pound goliath grouper who has been king of the hill here for over 30 years pretty much just observed the proceedings. No one messes with Herbie.
Ah so many fish, so little time — I fed as many as I could in the 35 minute feeding frenzy and came away with a new respect for the difference between just snorkeling — and actually swimming with the fishes…
Back on land, my next animal rendezvous was of a more playful nature. I got to meet and greet Snapper, the sea lion. I learned the difference between sea lions and seals and watched Snapper 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… Snapper 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 Romeo, 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. “Slaughtered” babes reincarnated as wraps, croquettes and burgers. We couldn’t convince our guide Alexander to maybe find some more euphemistic term to describe their sad demise….
Admittedly, this was one of those experiences that actually turn out to be more interesting than you expect. First, we learned a lot. Ostriches have no teeth so they can’t bite but they can kick like crazy and run at 50 miles an hour. The farm — you know — the one that feeds baby ostriches to its customers — apparently tricks the birds into laying more than they ordinarily would by stealing the eggs before they are hatched. Apparently you end up with a lot of extra omelets that way!
But they are fascinating bird to watch. They walk regally, head held high with a haughty look that conveys a “don’t mess with me” demeanor, but with a small pointy little face that can’t help but elicit a smile.
I liked them — I did — but I couldn’t get beyond the fact that people were actually riding the poor birds, which looked about the last thing the ostrich wanted to happen. Two guys on either side hold the ostrich’s wings to keep him from running away with his passenger, who despite the cascading giggles looked absolutely terrified. Alexander basically said that very few people ever really opt for another ride…
Feeding them, on the other hand, felt a lot more charitable. With my back to the outside of the fence and holding a feed bucket in front of me, two birds stretched their necks around me and pecked like crazy at the pellets. I felt like a large feathery cape had suddenly become alive and had gone into a feeding frenzy. I longed to be back among the fishes. More dainty eaters, they.
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 underwater swim eating a fried fish sandwich.
And now an animal story for the future based on a rare occurrence this past August 2015 at the Santa Barbara Resort. Turtle hatching!!! Turtles rarely nest on a busy hotel beach, especially one where their access to the ocean is impeded. But nest they did for the first time ever — and once tracks were spotted the Sea Turtle Conservation Agency set up precautions. The resort put a team together that made sure the nest was protected during the incubation of the eggs. They even put together a turtle watch, and under their eager eyes, at least 80 little hawksbill turtles, a critically endangered species, made it safely to their new home in the water. The good news for avid turtle watchers everywhere — as well as the resort — is that they are expected back again next August.
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 birds and lizards, and if so tempted, a visit to Jaanchie Restaurant. Here an iguana, 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 recommend it than the ostrich meat. For more information, visit http://www.royalseaquariumresort.com/curacao-sea-aquarium.asp; ostriches, curacaoostrichfarm.com/?lang=en; turtle hatching, http://www.santabarbararesortcuracao.com.