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.

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