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Dolphins: Discovery Cove

My third up-close encounter with dolphins took place at Discovery Cove in Orlando in early September of 2003.  Richard and I had just installed our daughter in college in St. Augustine and were spending a few days together in Orlando before heading back to Italy.

The previous ten days had been hectic.  We had touched down in Orlando and gone straight to Disney.  We had always promised Melissa a visit to Magic Kingdom, so did it really matter that she was eighteen years old?  After three days of “doing the parks” we headed up to Jacksonville where we stayed with friends while we acquired Melissa’s “stuff” for college.

Several hundreds of dollars later and having formed an intimate relationship with Wal-Mart and Target, we took Melissa and said “stuff” to college.  We stayed overnight in a nearby hotel and fielded calls about more “stuff” that she needed, necessitating another late night trip to Wal-Mart where I almost had a heart attack as my daughter smugly told me in yet another phone call that she had just been laid. ( As in having a lei placed around her neck – the correct spelling didn’t come across the phone!!!)

I was more than ready for a few days of peace and quiet in a beautiful hotel resort and some quality time with my husband.  Apart from lazing around the hotel pool, enjoying room service, and watching some TV we only had one grand plan.  When Richard had booked these few days he had also acquired tickets for a day at Discovery Cove.

Discovery Cove is nothing like a Disney Park.  Yes, it is a man-made paradise but it is just that – a paradise.  I’m not sure exactly how big it is but they limit the number of people that can enter in one day to one thousand, and we never felt crowded.  There is lush tropical planting, gorgeous flowers everywhere, lovely walk ways, and a “river” that surrounds the whole park that you can tube in.

At the Center of Discovery Cove are three man-made lagoons but they look very natural and very real.  One lagoon contains over 800 species of fish and after donning the wet suit that we had been provided with we slipped in among the rocks and swam around.  It was quite an incredible experience to snorkel in the middle of hundreds of fish of different shapes and sizes and colours.  I reached out several times and touched Mantas as they swam by flapping their “wings” in slow ripples of movement. Nature is truly a great marvel.

In the middle of this lagoon was an island with a ship-wrecked boat on the other side.  To get round there we swam through a deeper section of the lagoon where larger fish swam lazily back and forth.  As we approached the ship wreck we saw a huge gash in its side and I almost had another heart attack.  Inside the hole were many sharks.  It took me a moment to realize that there was thick glass across the opening and that the sharks were contained in an aquarium of sorts.

The second lagoon was created as nature intended.  There were a few rocks along one side and the rest was surrounded by beautiful white beach.  We chose a spot and took possession of our sun beds and deck chairs and settled in for some serious R & R.  It was quiet and peaceful and such a joy to be in these beautiful surroundings.  But I could feel a steady tingle of anticipation building in my stomach.  The highlight of the day for me was yet to come.

As a special treat Richard had booked me to have a dolphin experience.  And so later in the afternoon I went and took my place over at the third and largest lagoon where the dolphins are kept and trained.  After watching a video about dolphins and how we should treat them if we should encounter them at sea, we walked into the lagoon.  We were divided into small groups of five or six per instructor and then other instructors joined us and gave signals and up came our dolphins.  What a magical moment!

I realized immediately that our dolphin was different.  He didn’t have the typical snub nose of the bottle-nose dolphin and his forehead was not as pronounced.  He reminded me of the dolphins that I had seen depicted in old mosaics over in Europe.  The instructor introduced him as JC and explained immediately that he was not a bottle-nose. 

We then began to interact with JC as he swam around us and performed various maneuvers at the instructor’s command.  We each had the opportunity to hold him in our arms and as he lay there he would roll over so that we could see his underside.  I was in another world.  I couldn’t believe that I was actually holding this beautiful creature.  He was so docile and I was struck by the soft yet intelligent expression in his eyes, and I was reminded of my dolphin in Rimini.

I am not a good swimmer and, due to an almost drowning experience when  I was nine years old, I stay in water where I know I am in my depth.  So when the instructor said “now you will all have the opportunity to go out to the deeper water and let JC bring you back to shore”, my stomach plummeted, my heart plummeted, and I felt desolate.  But immediately I knew I wanted to do this. 

I explained my predicament to the instructor and he eased my fears.  He promised to swim out there with me and to stay close to me.  He told me if at any time I should feel panicky, to let him know and he would support me.  He could see I really wanted to do this.  But for me it was more than a want or desire; I needed to do this.  With my heart in my mouth and forcing myself to stay calm we headed out to the middle of the lagoon.

What can I say.  I made it out there and the instructor was wonderful, beside me all the way.  Then he made me tread water and held my hand and before I knew it JC had suddenly appeared in front of me.  And there we were, face to face, and I knew a total peace and understanding in that moment.  The instructor gave a signal and JC slowly turned around and came along side me.  Following instructions, I took hold of his dorsal fin with my right hand and his side fin with my left hand.

The next moment we were off, surging through the water with amazing power.  Just a few flicks of his tail and some incredible thrusts of that sleek but strong body and we were flying.  There was no time for fear. There was no place for fear.  We were doing this together, JC and me, and I felt like I could have followed him with no hesitation to the ocean floor.  How magnificent I felt in those few moments that it took him to bring me to the beach, and how sad I felt as I realized that I had to let him go. 

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