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Underwater and Overwater Animal Encounters in Curacao

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By Fyllis Hockman

Their bodies were sleek and graceful, the skin soft to the touch, their demeanor welcoming even if a bit skeptical. Still, they were more used to this than I was. I spread my arms out as instructed and flapped them in the water. Romeo and Pasku, two of my dolphin snorkeling companions, then swam under my outstretched limbs, and we lay back into the water as though sunbathing. Then we went back to free swim.

Such is one of the many highlights at the Dolphin Academy, one of several up-front-and-personal animal encounters available at the Sea Aquarium on the Caribbean island of Curacao.

I don't usually like watching animals perform tricks that are alien to their DNA for the amusement of tourists, but at the Dolphin Academy the residents are treated with such loving care that I swam alongside them with minimal guilt. According to trainer Yvette, the dolphins are the first priority.

"They are on a very light work schedule, and every day it varies," she said. "Like humans, they react better when their life is not all that predictable. And if for any reason they don't want to perform -- perhaps they're preoccupied with a personal family situation -- the program is called off."

As if on cue, a participant related a past experience in which dolphins used to give rides to people holding onto their fins. Not anymore. Although it doesn't harm the dolphins (some disagree), the academy got a lot of criticism in the past. Clearly the dolphins didn't like it, so it was stopped years ago. I nodded; point well taken. Score one for the dolphins.

 

Prior to the snorkel, Yvette instructed us on how to proceed: Be patient, let them come to you, stroke them along their flanks. She taught us how to encourage the dolphin to come alongside and then free dive in unison. Romeo and I shared a number of shallow dives together, and in parting he gave me a kiss. OK, so he did it because he got a fish, but I still thought he was actually smiling at me at the time.

Dafne Greeven, a dive instructor from The Hague, Netherlands, said she had seen dolphins in the ocean but had never interacted with them.

"Most animal encounters are much more commercial," she said. "Snorkeling with them was a very special personal experience. It was wonderful to see how well they treat the dolphins here and encourage us to be relaxed so that the dolphins will be."

That was only the start of my very personal connection with sea life in Curacao. My next encounter took me even farther underwater. I've been snorkeling before -- but never in the past did the fish swarm to me rather than my having to swim out to them. But then again I don't usually carry a supply of squiggly little sardines with me when I go while at the same time making meaningful eye contact. Well, meaningful to me anyway.

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