This was one time 8-year-old Emily Kasmer was glad to get pushed around by a couple of older, much bigger kids. In fact, Emily can't wait to see them again.
That's because these two older kids -- 10-year-old Santini and 12-year-old Elita -- are dolphins at the not-for-profit Dolphin Research Center on Grassey Key, Fla., home to a colony of bottlenose dolphins that live in Gulf of Mexico lagoons there.
One hot Saturday afternoon in August, Emily and her father, Russ, swam and played with these magnificent 8-foot-long animals, hanging on to their fins as the 200-plus-pound mammals pushed them through the water.
"They felt like rubber hard-boiled eggs," reported Emily, who lives in Fort Lauderdale and is a star member of the swim team.
Too bad my 6-year-old daughter, Melanie, wasn't as thrilled by her chance to join the dolphins. Too bad I'd paid $90 (nonrefundable, of course) for her spot, reserved weeks ahead. At least my husband, who had joined us at the last minute, had a good time, taking Melanie's place.
The hope is, of course, that such carefully crafted interactive experiences will inspire kids and adults alike to help protect the marine ecosystem. The Dolphin Research Center, for example, is known internationally for its efforts to treat sick or wounded dolphins as well as for its educational and therapeutic programs.
"The trend is more hands-on. That makes a more lasting impression," explains Cheryl Messinger, president of the Dolphin Connection, located at Hawk's Cay Resort, just two miles from the Dolphin Research Center.
I'd been assured when I booked our experience at the Dolphin Research Center that children even younger than Melanie had ** happily jumped right into the water with the dolphins. It never occurred to me that our first-grader, a strong swimmer, would be less than thrilled to cavort with fast-moving creatures who outweigh her by more than 250 pounds.
Up the road at Hawk's Cay Resort, Messinger, mother of two young children and longtime dolphin trainer, had predicted Melanie's reaction.
That's why this summer Messinger began offering a 45-minute Dolphin Detectives program every afternoon for kids age 5 and older at Hawk's Cay.
"From what we see with school groups, they all want to touch a dolphin, feed one and see one dolphin jump," she said. "But many kids are apprehensive about getting in the water with them."
Dolphin Detectives gives the kids a glimpse into a dolphin trainer's world. The junior Dolphin Detectives help feed the dolphins, getting their fish right out of the ice. They throw them toys. They pet them. The interactions, Messinger said, are "as much fun for the dolphins as for the kids."
To those who argue dolphins shouldn't be kept in captivity, Messinger said, "We would never have these animals in a situation that would compromise their health and well-being. In these programs, they get better health care, food and live longer than animals in the wild." At the same time, the animals are taught to cooperate in significant research projects that enable scientists to learn more about marine mammals and their environment.
The day we visited Hawk's Cay, 12-year-old Carly Doviak, from Wellington, Fla., was enjoying her third dolphin encounter. Carly's muscular dystrophy keeps her in a wheelchair most of the time.
"But when Carly gets in the water with the dolphins, she forgets her weaknesses," explained her father Tom. "She can't do a lot of things other kids do," he said. "This is her special thing. It's a time she can go up against something much bigger than she is and not be afraid."
When you go...
Along with swim-with-dolphin programs, most of these sites offer other opportunities for viewing the dolphins and marine life at prices comparable to museum admissions.
* For more information about the Dolphin Research Center, call 305-289-1121. It's necessary to book the swim program a month ahead, with reservations taken on the first day of the month for the following month. Children 12 and under must be accompanied by a parent.
* Call Dolphin Connection at 305-743-7000, Ext. 3030, for more information about the Dolphin Detectives program at Hawk's Cay Resort. The program costs $25 for guests at the resort and $30 for others. It's wise to book at least a month ahead. An in-water dolphin program is available for adults and older children who are at least 4 feet 6. It costs $70 for resort guests and $80 for nonguests.
* Dolphins Plus on Key Largo offers different in-water programs for children age 7 and older (starting at $100 per person) and for those age 10 and older ($145 for a half-day) who are accompanied by a parent. Call 305-451-1993.
* At the Islamorada-based Theater of the Sea, children must be at least 13 to swim with the dolphins, $85 per person, including the $15.25 park admission. Call 305-664-2431.
* Elsewhere, Dolphin Quest offers various in-water programs for adults, teens and children ages 5-12 at the Hilton Waikoloa Village in Hawaii, the Moorea Beachcomber Park Royal Resort in French Polynesia and the newest program at the Southampton Princess Hotel in Bermuda. For more information, call Dolphin Quest at 540-687-5958.
* Sea World of Florida in Orlando (407-363-2380) and Sea World of California in San Diego (619-226-3903) have interactive programs in which guests get into the water with the dolphins and their trainers. The program costs $125. Children must be at least 13 and 52 inches tall. Those under 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Pub Date: 9/07/97