Prior to this year, the only experience I had ever had with a dolphin was watching them on television. I’ve had numerous opportunities for an experience, but always declined because I had a choice. But after a year of not being able to make decisions because everything was shut down, I decided it’s time to get out there and just experience the old once again, and the new, which meant making a date with dolphins.
Atlantis’ Dolphin Cay offers two experiences – Swim In Wonder, an hour-long, deep-water adventure where you learn about what dolphins eat, how they exercise and their unique ways of communicating with one another; and Dip ‘N Discover an experience described as an inspirational interaction in which you get to engage with and learn about rescued bottlenose dolphins. This experience meant wading in waist-high water and listening to the dolphins’ vocalizations and witnessing their athletic swimming abilities and other natural behaviors.
I was introduced to the dolphins at the most rudimentary level as far as experiences. I am a natural toe-dipper. I need to start out cautiously rather than jumping in blindfolded, so I opted for the Dip ‘N Discover program. Right away I fell in love with my dolphin, Nechama, a 10-year-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. She sang happy birthday to me, as well as happy anniversary since I celebrated both special occasions in the same month that I visited. And the level of intelligence she displayed, Nechama was super impressive with her speed and agility.
Endearing Nechama to me even more was the amazing story behind how she came about her name, which Tazia Rutherford, director of marine mammal operations shared with me.
Nechama as a girl’s name is of Hebrew origin meaning “comfort or solace”. The Dolphin Cay team hosted a customized 90-minute private interaction for a past Atlantis guest named Nechama who had a rare form of leukemia, and her medical team, through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The day after the Nechama returned home to New York she died. The Dolphin Cay team named the bottlenose dolphin after Nechama.
My experience with Nechama was truly wonderful. Looking back, I’m amazed it took me this long to have a dolphin experience.
Rutherford said it’s an experience everyone should have at least once in their lifetime as they get to interact with one of the most intelligent animals in the world.
From Rutherford I learned the beauty and necessity of community from dolphins who are highly social animals. Regardless of whose calf an animal is or isn’t, everyone is taken care of.
And that while enjoying my experience that I was also protecting and conserving marine life in The Bahamas and throughout the Caribbean. A portion of the proceeds from my Atlantis Marine experience went toward the Atlantis Blue Project which is dedicated to education, protection and conservation of marine life throughout The Bahamas and Caribbean.
In the COVID era in accordance with the law and keeping safety as their number one concern, Rutherford said animal interactions are limited in capacity to allow social distancing, which consequently provides each family or traveling group their own animal in each interaction.
Each experience is personal and intimate for guests in a new way. Atlantis team members wear face masks and socially distance themselves as best as possible during experiences and the capacity of observers on the dolphin beach is limited as well.
Other groups were distanced with their dolphin around this Caribbean’s premier marine animal rehabilitation facility – one of the largest and most sophisticated habitats in the world. Dolphin Cay is also the home to the 17 stranded dolphins and 10 sea lions whose home in Gulfport, Mississippi, was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
By the time Dolphin Cay opened for guests in 2007, five calves had already been born. Fourteen Katrina dolphins still call Atlantis home.
Two of Dolphin Cay’s oldest dolphins Kelly and Jackie, 47-years-old, are both Hurricane Katrina survivors.
Dolphin Cay also offers a Playtime with Sea Lions experience. It’s an interaction like no other, beginning with a brief guided tour of Dolphin Cay ending at the sea lion interactive lagoon. Once in the water, participants are introduced to one of either their Californian or South American sea lions. After touching, listening to and watching them while being educated by one of their sea lion experts, you get the opportunity to take a dip with a sea lion in a one-of-kind, out-of-this world adventure.
This toe-dipper opted for the behind-the-scenes tour of the animal hospital, pharmacy, lab and surgical suite where the rescued animals are cared for. There, I met Sunshine, 20-years-old, a Californian female, who deigned to take a picture with me; Balto, 13-years-old, a South American male sea lion who tips the scale at more than 650-pounds and was playing a game of fetch with his person when I visited and greeted me with a mighty roar.
I was awed by Balto who has a luxuriously thick mane, and who took my nerve when he vocalized his mighty roar. According to Rutherford – who joined the Atlantis team nearly 15 years ago and has been caring for the amazing dolphins, sea lions and birds that call Atlantis home, ever since then – Balto has that exact effect on everyone he meets.
Then there was Sebastian, 21-years-old, a Californian male who neared the 600-pound mark during my visit.
As Rutherford took me through my experience, she said while she loves the animals, what she most enjoys about her job are the expressions animals and people have when they see or hear something new.
I will work up the nerve to take that dip someday soon. Who knows I may actually get the gumption to participate in the Ultimate Trainer for a Day at Dolphin Cay, joining the marine mammal specialists and aquarists for an action-packed fun-filled day of unique and inspiring experiences, which include helping lead an enrichment session for the dolphins, hand-feeding nurse sharks and snorkeling with stingrays and other tropical fish. This experience also includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the animal hospital, coupled with experiences throughout the day to gain a deep understanding and respect for marine mammals and the people who take care of them.