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Dolphins: Panama City Beach

Last year I attended a conference with my friend Kathi in Panama City Beach.  Included in our registration was a ticket for a cruise of the harbor and nearby environs.  But we do live in Florida and a hurricane was threatening and we weren’t even sure if the conference would still run or whether it would be canceled.

As frequently happens, and very luckily for us, the hurricane made a last minute hook and veered further out into the Gulf.  Our convention was on.  However, as we got closer to our destination on I-10 from Jacksonville, we became aware that we were probably going to feel at least the edge of the hurricane in Panama City Beach.

We checked into our hotel and got our first view of the ocean.  The water was pretty churned up sending long rolling breakers crashing onto the shore.  The wind was blowing real strong and we wondered if our harbor cruise would be canceled.  We were not too sure if we would even want to get into a boat with weather conditions as they were!

We went down to the reception area and found out that the cruise was on and shuttles were running down to the harbor.  We decided to go check it out and were so pleased to discover that most of the area that the boat would be operating in was very protected.  So, along with about forty other people, we boarded and set sail into the approaching sunset.

The coastline was very pretty and there were little islands dotted around here and there.  Seagulls and pelicans swooped low over the water, probably hoping for a last meal before the sun went down.  The captain announced that he was going to pull around and head into an area where they usually saw dolphins.  Kathi and I decided to station ourselves right at the front of the boat so we wouldn’t miss a thing.

We cruised along a stretch of the outer harbor without seeing a single dolphin.  We were all scanning the waves but to no avail.  After running a little over time, the Captain said he would have to turn around and head back into the harbor. Shortly after his announcement a shout was heard and sure enough there were a couple of dolphins swimming ahead of the boat dipping in and out of the water.  We were all very excited and quite happy to have made the sighting.

At this point Kathi and I decided to step back from the front to allow others to watch.  We sat a little to one side (don’t ask me if it was port or starboard, I’m not a sailor!) and just chatted as we watched some of the small islands on our return to port.

Suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, immediately to the side of the boat and right in front of our eyes, a dolphin leapt out of the water.  This was not one of those curved-body, breaking-of-the-waves jump.  This was a straight-up-in-the-air,  shot-from-the-barrel-of-a-gun, all-muscles-involved leap of joy. 

We gave a great shout and leapt to the side railing.  My heart was beating wildly as I watched this incredible creature.  Just as he reached the pinnacle of his leap he gave a slight twist to one side, then went crashing back down into the sea. 

I was breathless, speechless, almost dizzy with joy at this amazing sight.  I clung to the railings trying to take it all in and was about to say something to Kathi when, whoosh, with a sudden surge the waters opened and up he came again. His body was sleek and powerful , his muscles rippling smoothly, glistening in the last rays of the evening sun.  It was almost as though he was saying, “Look at me!  See how beautiful I am!”.  And oh my God yes, he was strikingly beautiful as he hung fleetingly suspended in mid air.

He disappeared under the waves and I could feel my happiness collecting wildly in my throat.  I wanted to shout and scream and jump.  Tears were welling up in my eyes, the emotion was so strong.  We scanned the surface of the water but to no avail.  The show was over and the Captain turned into the port channel and took us safely back to our berthing.

I was quiet for this last leg of the cruise.  I needed to process the feelings, the sense of wonder that filled me.  I said a quiet thank you to God in my heart for this amazing gift that he had presented me with.  This world is truly an incredible creation that I need to appreciate and respect more and more with each passing day.  Back to the hotel we went and I slept with a heart overflowing with gratitude and love that night.   

Dolphins: Marineland, Florida

Jax - Marineland 27 Sep 07 027 Jax - Marineland 27 Sep 07 047  Jax - Marineland 27 Sep 07 041

Just south of St. Augustine, Florida on Route A1A is Marineland.  My husband and I had read about Marineland when we researched dolphins in Florida.  However, when we did our initial research we learned that it was closed for renovations.  So we put it on the back burners of our minds and only just remembered about it last year.

Marineland is actually a town, albeit very small.  The population in 2006 was – ten!!  There are probably more people employed at the Dolphin Conservation Center than actually live in the “town”.  The Center was originally built in 1938 as one of Florida’s first theme parks and was described as the world’s first “oceanarium”.  In 1999 Hurricanes Flloyd and Irene caused a prolonged closure and also much damage.  In 2003 it was decided to completely close the place and do a major overhaul. 

It was opened as the Dolphin Conservation Center in early 2006 and is now a hands-on interactive center for the public and the dolphins.  There are many different “packages” that can be booked offering a range of interactive programs from swimming with the dolphins, to training them, to painting with them.  Yes, I did say painting!  However, it is also possible to pay just a general entrance fee and simply admire and watch the dolphins as they swim freely in a huge round tank and then watch a short “performance” as the trainers put them through their routines.  As you watch them in the round tank you may get lucky and find yourself playing “catch” with the dolphins as they toss their balls over the walls of the tank to unsuspecting members of the public!    

It takes about an hour and fifteen minutes to drive there from where we live.  So one beautiful day in late spring 2008 we decided to take the Harley for a run.  The weather was perfect – not too hot, a nice breeze, and no rain on the horizon.  We chose to elongate the ride by following 17 south past Palatka, then we cut across SR 100 and enjoyed a beautiful ride over to A1A.  What a blessing it was to be enjoying God’s creation together!

We parked the bike, paid our admission fee, and headed on in.  The set up is very beautiful with a well laid out visitor and gift center and also a small restaurant/cafe.  We followed the walk along the sea wall from the center over to the dolphin tanks.  There were hundreds of butterflies (Monarchs I think) so it may have been migration time for them. 

As we approached the first big round tank there were three or four dolphins swimming there and no sooner did they see us than they began to toss their toys over the top of the tank to us.  We spent a while “playing” with them and just watching the grace and beauty and strength of their bodies as they moved so easily in the water.  I don’t think I will ever tire of watching dolphins swim.

Shortly after this we were called to come to the big rectangular pool (about half the size of an Olympic swimming pool).  A couple of trainers entered the pool and opened the gate to the tank.  One of the dolphins came through and we watched as the trainers showed us exactly how they trained the dolphins and we marveled at their intelligence.  The gate was opened once more and two more dolphins came through and for the next fifteen to twenty minutes we were mesmerized as they leaped into the air, carried trainers on their noses, on their backs, and showed off their talents, skills and intelligence.

Although this was a much smaller “show” than any I had seen before, I still enjoyed just being in the presence of these incredible creatures.  I always feel as though I am in the presence of some great energy.  For me being with the dolphins is a very spiritual experience.  We rode home after the show and I know my heart was full of joy and my soul was singing. And I found myself wondering when my next dolphin experience will be. 

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.