Aquarium comedians make a splash DANCES WITH DOLPHINS

November 21, 1990|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Evening Sun Staff

Of all the things they've discovered about their new home at the National Aquarium's Marine Mammal Pavilion, Akai, Nalu and Nani seem to like the 55-foot-long window wall the best.

Walk up to the 8-foot-high acrylic window and the three bottlenose dolphins will soon delight you by swimming up and peering back at you.

But, look out. It's a setup.

"They'll wait and, at just the right moment, a wall of water comes over the side," said Doug Messinger, the assistant curator of dolphins.

Several reporters invited yesterday to preview the exhibit before its Dec. 26 opening fell for the gag. They were rewarded with a saltwater baptism squirted over the wall by the marine comedians.

The dolphins weren't trained to do it. They just seem to get a kick out of it.

"I think they like watching everybody's reaction as they jump back from the wall," said Messinger, who has known and worked with these dolphins for years in their previous home in Galveston, Texas.

When it's not playtime, aquarium mammologists continue to train the dolphins and three beluga whales for the three to six shows they'll perform daily for visitors to the 1,300-seat Lyn P. Meyerhoff Amphitheater.

The 30-minute programs are intended to display the dolphins performing "natural" behaviors. Aquarium officials have said their primary purpose is education, and they vowed to avoid a "circus-like atmosphere."

In yesterday's preview, the dolphins demonstrated their speed and leaping abilities, performing high tandem leaps, forward and backward mid-air flips, all accompanied by recorded music and video displays on two large screens above the pool.

They also demonstrated the squeaks and clicks they use to communicate, pushed a diver through the water like an underwater barge and, blindfolded, used their "sonar" abilities to locate and retrieve two rings tossed into the pool.

Elsewhere, aquarium employees are still writing and editing much of the live and recorded video presentations that will augment the performances and deliver what Pittenger described as a "strong conservation statement."

Construction work on the $35 million pavilion on Pier 4 is almost complete, and Pittenger pronounced the results "beautiful . . . they did a wonderful job."

It is also, however, six months behind schedule.

Pittenger said the delay is due mostly to problems with the two, 55-foot acrylic windows on the main tank, which developed stress cracks after they were installed.

The delays cost the aquarium a bundle, and officials are currently negotiating a financial settlement with the general contractor, Gust K. Newberg Construction Co., of Chicago.

The pavilion will also open next month without one of the six bottlenose dolphins brought to Baltimore for the debut.

Pittenger said Schooner, one of three dolphins flown here Oct. 23 from Hawk's Cay in the Florida Keys, was flown back last weekend after she "intermittently" lost her appetite and avoided the other animals.

"I believe she would have worked out eventually," Pittenger said, "but we didn't want to take the risk."

The two remaining Florida dolphins -- Hailey and Shiloh -- are still in a quarantine tank one floor below the main exhibit. They will be introduced to the three Texas dolphins in the main tank in the next few weeks.

The Texas dolphins, meanwhile, seem to have adjusted well after nearly three months in their 1.2 million-gallon new home, which Messinger says is larger than anything they have known since their 1975 capture in the Gulf of Mexico.

In addition to splashing the unwary, the dolphins seem to love jumping out of the pool onto the central concrete "lily pads," then sliding back into the water.

Messinger said the 400-pound dolphins are also fascinated by the docile beluga whales -- Anore, Kia and Sikku -- which they can see and hear in the adjoining pools.

Pittenger said the two species will not be mixed. "The dolphins are much more aggressive animals, and there is some concern they would not get along," he said.

Messinger believes the interest may be sexual. The belugas are female, and most of the interest in them has been exhibited by the male dolphins.

"I interpret that as sexual, but we don't know that for a fact," he said.

Cross-species sexual liaisons have been reported. In Hawaii, a male false killer whale mated with a female bottlenose dolphin and produced a female offspring.

"The calf is still alive in Hawaii. She's five years old now and just had a baby," Messinger said.

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