Aquarium's babies train for their big splash


October 18, 1992|By Sheila Dresser | Sheila Dresser,SHEILA DRESSER is The Sun's TV editor.

He is a knife, a lithe gray blade slicing the water.

She is studious, practicing her perfect leaps over and over and over.

In their warm blue world, He and She, two dolphins born last March at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, are getting ready for their public debut. They will get names early next month. And soon they will take a bow at one of the dolphin shows in the light-splashed pools at the Marine Mammal Pavilion.

Among the mammalogist/trainers at the aquarium, the baby dolphins have already stolen the show. Since their births 2 1/2 weeks apart last March, they have reordered life in the dolphin pools.

When moms Shiloh and Hailey went on "maternity leave," for example, the dolphin demonstrations changed. The mix of the five adult dolphins -- two male and three female -- in the pools was altered so the mothers and their calves could be by themselves.

Dolphin calves usually come out tail first, and they are not all grace and agility. The mother sometimes has to push them to the surface for that first, vital breath of air. Their powerful tails, or flukes, are soft and curled into tubes. The dorsal fin that cuts through the water is limp and flopped on its side at birth. They glide beside Mom in her slipstream and if they leave her side, their swimming is a bit wobbly, "like a plane out of control," says mammalogist Steve Aibel.

For their first few months, He and She developed much like human babies. They nursed. They stayed close to Mom and didn't do much on their own. Dad was largely out of it. No offense, dads of the '90s; male dolphins can be aggressive, so Nalu and Akai, the two adult males, were initially isolated from the calves. (In fact, the mammalogists aren't even certain who Dad is.)

The babies' health will be monitored intensely all through this first precarious year. So far, He and She are thriving. And gradually, the babies have noticed the world and started to explore with enthusiasm.

"They have bright eyes," says Mr. Aibel. "Everything's new and ++ novel."

Seven months old now, they play with their mothers, with their toys, with each other and with the mammalogists who will one day train them for demonstrations. Born mimics, they even copy their moms' jumps and moves. One day, for example, Shiloh and She streaked through the water like F-16s in tight formation, separated by inches. Suddenly they cut to the right, then left, then right, another right, near 90-degree turns in perfect synchrony.

The babies will nurse for 18 to 24 months, but weaning begins when the calves get interested in solid food. Because fish are used to reward the dolphins, formal training for the shows won't begin until they start to supplement their mothers' milk with the fish provided by the mammalogists. Their acceptance of the fish the foundation for the bond of trust that must be built between trainer and dolphin. Until then, there is "basic" training, such as learning not to grab trainers with their mouths.

"We try to show them 'I provide fish, I'm a fun person to be with, we're going to have a good time out here,' " says Nedra Hecker, a curator of marine mammals at the aquarium.

At four months, formal training was still some time off; the pieces of fish tossed their way were just another toy. But their personalities -- and their star quality -- were already emerging.

"She will be easy to train because of her self-confidence," Ms. Hecker says. "She practices over and over and over -- flips, tail walks and jumps. He never does that.

"One day She did five to six somersaults, took a break, did some more," Ms. Hecker says. "The next day She sort of discovered how to do a tail walk and then practiced that."

A little less sure of himself at first, He is "now more outgoing, more interactive than her," says Ms. Hecker. Give him an audience, and He's ready to go -- even when it's just a few trainers by the pool working with the other dolphins. He plays enthusiastically, attracting attention when he "tackles" a bobbing basketball again and again, "waves" his pectoral flipper or races around the pool at top speed.

Dolphins in the wild do tail walks, leaps, spins and somersaultsThe babies have not been trained to do these "tricks." In fact, the mammalogists don't even call them "tricks," but "behaviors."

" 'Tricks' is degrading. Pets do 'tricks,' " says trainer Duncan Whittier.

"We're not tricking anybody," says Ms. Hecker. "There's nothing up my sleeve. They're doing what they do naturally."

All the trainers do is "extend their natural ability," she says. A dolphin in the wild may do a half-flip out of the ocean. "We train it like an Olympic athlete and make it a double-forward."

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