Flipper with a foot fetish

At Florida's Dolphins Plus, it's the humans who provide the entertainme nt, as David Sandhu found out

Bob's got an Oedipus complex. Isla likes to suck toes. Alfonso is into sexual harassment. These are just some of the revelations made public during our swimming-with-dolphins briefing at Dolphins Plus, a pioneering marine research and education centre in Key Largo.

Our American instructor had gently removed our rose-tinted sunglasses and was deconstructing some mythology to prepare us for our encounter with seven semi-wild Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, living in a contained seawater lagoon.

Some sense of reality had already hit us after we'd left Highway One, less than two hours' drive from the dazzling pastel hues of Miami's South Beach, to arrive at the centre's functional, grey headquarters. The antithesis of Seaworld, Dolphins Plus is a non-profit body whose work with tourists helps fund rehabilitation programmes for children with special needs. "We are not an amusement park," states the brochure.

At the briefing, we learn of two-year-old Bob's uncomfortably close relationship with his mother, Jessica (he'd soon be joining the other males); of Isla's passion for the human toe, and of Alfonso's attempt to mate with a reluctant Samantha that resulted in her nursing a broken jaw. "Dolphins like to have a good time," explains our instructor, Jon. "Whatever feels good, tastes good or looks good, they want it."

He continues with a few New Age analogies (we will be entering their house; we are toys for them to play with) and offers practical tips: don't stare them out or use your hands - it signals aggression - and, most important, don't touch them. Two children in our dozen-strong party, disappointed, question this but are cheered to hear that these aquatic hedonists prefer "little people". If really upset, we are warned, they'll place their razor-sharp teeth around our legs or rise up, nod their heads and whistle - despite what you've seen on Flipper, nodding means no. (Interestingly, Ric O'Barry, the former trainer of Flipper back in the Sixties, is involved in a controversial campaign to free all captive dolphins, despite an extremely low survival rate.)

More wary than when we arrived, but just as excited, we enter the murky seawater, equipped with masks, snorkels and floating barbells. We occasionally glimpse a shadow, a hint of fin; but, as predicted, for the first few minutes we are the ones being observed. The clicks and whistles of the dolphins are piercing yet calming.

Listening, fascinated, to this strange language, it seems possible to imagine the content: "Who are these people? More tourists?" "By the pathetically slow and cautious way they're swimming, I guess so."

Many experts believe dolphins create "sound pictures" through the sonar technique called echolocation. The dolphin is thought to send out sound waves by emitting a series of clicks from nasal sacs deep inside the head. The sound travels through the water until it "hits" something. The sound wave is reflected back to the dolphin which is then able to evaluate and track down the object. This, I presume, was how they located us.

Most of our party simply hold the floats, kick with their legs, look around, and hope to be noticed. We are there to perform for them. Entertainment? An unsynchronised human swimming gala. Comedy.

First impressions last. Dolphins are large creatures anyway (averaging 7ft long), but the water's magnifying effect makes them huge, while their speed and agility are astonishing. Darting past, around, and under, making you feel desperately ungainly, they appear to smile and wink. A mouthful of salt water stops you smiling back, but a shiver of joy is the natural reaction. Dolphins have 360-degree vision which ensures that nobody gets slapped by their powerful tails, though the fleeting touches of their lithe bodies as they swim past make you wish for more. In fact, Dolphins Plus make no guarantee of any contact. The best chance of gaining a one- on-one encounter is to do something completely ridiculous. One of our party starts mimicking a chicken - elbows flapping, squawking - and is rewarded by two dolphins circling him, intrigued, for several minutes, before they tire of such desperate attention-seeking.

Later, a group game is arranged: we split into two groups, parallel, five yards apart, each holding a giant palm. On Jon's whistle, the groups swim towards each other. As we do so, feeling silly, three dolphins dart between us, their high-pitched whistles ringing in our ears, like the sound of hysterical schoolgirls.

Individually identifying these beguiling mammals is impossible for us as novices - it's usually done via rake marks accrued through fighting. But it is fun to guess.

Our allotted 20 minutes has not been enough. With reluctance we haul ourselves out of the water, pulling our toes away from the edge, as instructed, in case Isla fancies a nibble. Though secretly hoping she does.

New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all