Ahlan!'s Sarah Swain Turns Dolphin Trainer for a Day at Atlantis The Palm

Ahlan!'s Sarah Swain Turns Dolphin Trainer for a Day at Atlantis The Palm

07 Aug 2013

It's flipping fin-tastic at Atlantis The Palm's Dolphin Bay!

Examining small slimy dead fish to see if their eyes are intact wasn’t what I expected to be doing during my day as a dolphin trainer. But it’s an important part of the job. Because while you might think trainers spend their days having beautiful dolphins leap over them as they pose in their sleek wetsuits, it’s far from the truth. “It’s not as glamorous as a lot of people think it is,” says Sean Parker, 38, assistant director, marine mammals at the hotel’s Dolphin Bay. “The first few hours involve a hard slog. It’s dirty work. We often see the trainers looking fantastic in their wetsuits with the dolphin and, yes, that’s part of the job, but 90 per cent of the job is not that. It really does revolve around the care of the animals.”

And making sure the fishes’ eyes, faces and bodies look healthy enough for the dolphins to eat is part of this. Luckily, they don’t really smell too much, and I manage to throw them all into a small steel bucket. However, with 28 hungry dolphin mouths to feed six times a day it’s a big job – they go through 150kg of capelin, school whiting and squid fish every 24 hours.

Sean then has another task for me. Every day the trainers must aerate the sand in the public areas with a rake, to remove algae. It’s hard work in the blazing hot sun, and I can only manage a couple of goes before I need a rest. The trainers must then carefully check the pools for rubbish, “Dolphins eat jellyfish and a plastic bag may resemble a jellyfish, and that can cause havoc,” says Sean. Fortunately there’s nothing there that shouldn’t be today.

It’s all very interesting, but I’ve been here for hours, I’m tired, sweaty and smell of fish, and I have not caught sight of as much as a dorsal fin yet.

Finally, Sean takes me to the huge covered pools where the dolphins spend the night. Atlantis’ residents are Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins. Some come to the surface and eye me curiously as I walk by. Ah! It’s hard to resist bending down to stroke them.

In another of the pools the trainers are carrying out their daily check-ups, examining each dolphin’s eyes, mouth, blow hole, and ears. Once a month they have a routine blood test and they’re all trained to be examined – some of the females, who are also having an ultrasound today, lie on their backs, quite content, as one of the centre’s two vets get to work. There is a state-of-the-art laboratory, microbiology lab and even a pharmacy here, plus a sick bay with a floor that can be raised to bring an ailing dolphin to the surface.

With no problems – nor pregnancies – discovered it’s time for training. Each trainer works on a specific move with a specific dolphin, to build up a relationship. They’re trained using fish as a reward, and are never punished. I join trainer Miguel who is teaching Black the ‘V spin’, an impressive move that sees the dolphin leap up and spin out of the water. Miguel uses a long heavy pole with a float on it and Black leaps up to touch the target with his nose. One thing’s for sure: you need strong arms to be a trainer – by the time Black swims to me the pole has drooped by about three feet due to arm fatigue!

You also need to be an excellent swimmer to get a job here, including being able to swim 50 metres under water. Some trainers are qualified in marine biology, animal behaviour or psychology, while more recent recruits have been able to benefit from on-the-job training.

As many as 1,000 visitors stream through the doors daily to meet the creatures. The finale of their experience sees each of the trainers propelled through the water by their dolphin, and I can see how all that hard work is worth it.

INFO: Dolphin Experience from Dhs620, www.atlantisthepalm.com.

3 other watery ways to have fun in the UAE
Dubai Aquarium
See what fish and sharks you can spot in the 10million litre tank. This is on my to-do list.
INFO: From Dhs70, 10am to 12am, 04 448 5200, www.thedubaiaquarium.com.
Abra ride on Dubai Creek
Take a step back in time with an unmissable trip aboard a traditional boat for a bargain price. I took my mum and she loved it! INFO: Dhs1, 5am to midnight, board at Bur Dubai or Deira, 800 9090.
Paddleboarding
Jennifer Aniston keeps fit by doing this and I can confirm it’s easier than it looks! Try Abu Dhabi Stand Up Paddle Club. INFO: Dhs200, 050 905 9743, different locations around Abu Dhabi, www.abudhabisup.com

Aquaventure is expanding!
We went on a special tour (complete with a hard hat and attractive high-visibility vest) to see what’s planned at Atlantis’ waterpark, Aquaventure. And UAE adrenaline lovers are in for a frolicking good time. The huge extension includes a jaw-dropping anaconda waterslide that holds six people in a rubber dinghy. It’s set to snake its way through the park with twists of almost 90 degrees. And two trapdoor chutes and the longest zipline in the Middle East will also be introduced as well as the longest river ride in the Middle East at 2.3 kilometres, with tidal waves and pools, water rapids and white water chargers! There’s also the death-defying Tower Of Poseidon. We cannot wait! Keep reading for the opening date, though it’s planned to be unveiled any day now!