SeaWorld Orlando visitors frequently see the theme park’s dolphins in midair, showing off their athletic skills. But that presentation is only a sliver of the dolphins’ everyday routine. In honor of National Dolphin Day, we spent time with the animals and Michael Hunt, SeaWorld’s curator for dolphins.
SeaWorld’s dolphins live in pools at the theater for “Dolphin Adventures,” in its Key West area and in the nursery near the park’s entrance. The company also has dolphins at its Discovery Cove day resort and at Aquatica, its water park, which features Commerson’s dolphins.
“We condition them to be an active participant in their own health care. While you may see the show and see flips and spins and jumps, that’s not the most important training that we do,” Hunt said Wednesday morning. “Teaching them to participate in the veterinary care is probably where we burn most of our calories.”
As part of the regular medical routine at SeaWorld, a dolphin named Potter is ready to give blood. He swims near the edge of the pool, where he is greeted by animal-care specialists who will take the blood from his tail.
“The tail is one of the most vascular parts of the body, sort of like looking at your arm and seeing the veins inside, the blood vessels in the tail are very close to the surface,” Hunt said.
The physical-exam process takes a few days per dolphin. The team gathers saliva, gastric, urine and fecal samples. The dolphins are even trained to take a deep breath and help with digital ultrasounds.
“They’re conditioned to present all different parts of their body for the doctor to see. They’re very good patients,” Hunt said. “And it’s because of the relationship that we have with them and the amount of time that we spend that they’re able to trust us to do things that may put them in a situation that could be, at first glance, something that doesn’t look comfortable.”
But Potter looks comfortable. He lays flat back, head in water, fins open wide, tail in the lap of the poolside trainer. He assumes the pose after being stroked under his jaw and gently pushed up and backward.
“They love to be touched, especially if the touches are soft. So if you’re rubbing their body, their belly, their fins, they’ll close their eyes and relax. … We capitalize on that,” Hunt said.
While one member of the SeaWorld team caresses the fin, another one finds a vein to take blood from. Getting Potter and other dolphins accustomed to this position is a gradual process.
“They may just want us to hold it for a couple of seconds. Then we build it up until we can hold their tail for several minutes, rubbing it and rubbing it — like getting a back massage,” Hunt said.
“Once they’re comfortable with that, we begin to desensitize them to the other elements — the veterinarian being here, with the vet tech being here,” he said. “The trainers will actually go as far as putting alcohol on their tail to prep them for what that feels like.”
When the time comes, they do feel the needle, Hunt said.
“It probably feels like a mosquito bite … just a little, little pressure,” he said.
The blood tests and other exams are processed in labs at SeaWorld Orlando and studied by the park’s veterinarians.
“We’re looking at red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, chemistries, which are kidney values, liver values, protein, inflammatory parameters,” said Dr. Lydia Staggs, a SeaWorld Orlando veterinarian. “What you would get as a human, we do for the dolphins.”
In general, the weakest system within dolphins is their lungs, she said.
“We always worry about pneumonia with them because they have a blowhole that goes straight into their trachea,” Staggs said.
But when it comes to sickness, a dolphin puts a happy face, so SeaWorld constantly monitors their health.
“They hide their illnesses really well,” Staggs said. That’s a genetic leftover from living with predators.
“If you’re ill in the wild, you get picked on, so they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.’ So, they hide it,” she said.
SeaWorld workers assigned to dolphins know their individual personalities.
“They’re not robots,” Hunt said. “And that is what makes every day different.”
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Their attitudes can be reflected with the enhancements they receive. Most dolphins like playing with their toys, small buoyant items tossed into the water. Some are buoy hogs, trying to wrangle two or more toys into their possession. At times, animal-care specialists gather at the round pool and toss a toy in the water. The dolphins swim out to fetch and return to the trainer. Repeat. All seven dolphins in the back pool got in on the act Wednesday. There also was a big black ball to bounce around.
“They would rather play with the toys than eat the breakfast,” Hunt said.
The elder statesman of SeaWorld Orlando’s dolphins? That’s Starbuck, who turns 44 years old this summer.
“Starbuck has exceeded the average [age] by far for bottlenose dolphins,” Hunt said. “What we’re finding now is that with the type of care that Dr. Staggs and her colleagues provide, the animals are living longer lives. That’s not just true in zoo animals. Because of advances in veterinary science, dogs and cats are living longer lives than they did in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
And Starbuck still has spring in his leap, which SeaWorld Orlando visitors may see at the park’s dolphin presentation.
“He jumps higher than the youngsters,” Hunt said. “You would never know that he was the oldest one.”
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