Growing up in the 1960s, I constantly was envious of Sandy and Bud Ricks, the sons of game warden Porter Ricks on the television show Flipper, which featured a frolicking bottlenose dolphin.
In my youth I was able to visit Marineland in the 1960s and 1970s, which then featured dolphin shows in a circus-like atmosphere.
It had been about 10 years since my family and I had visited, so we decided to take a side trip while in St. Augustine. The shows are no more, but the dolphins are still there. And they’re more accessible than ever.
Since 2006, Marineland’s Dolphin Conservation Center has offered several programs where visitors can interact with the dolphins. Three programs allow guests to swim with the amazing creatures.
We were able to participate in the Immersion program, which allowed us to swim with the dolphins in deep water. Each guest was provided a life vest and snorkel equipment, which made it easy to see the dolphins as they swam around, under and beside us.
Prior to getting into the water, trainers give guests an educational presentation. The session helps guests better understand the dolphins’ behavior and enhances the experience. Visitors also have a chance to see all the dolphins at the center, including 57-year-old Nellie, the oldest dolphin in human care.
Each group of visitors has a trainer who guides them through the program in the water. Our guide pointed out that all the tricks the dolphins perform actually help the staff in the care of the animals. There are nine dolphins at the center, and our program enabled us to interact with three of them.
Smiles never left our faces as we took turns feeding and petting the animals and directing them to do a few tricks. It’s an exhilarating feeling to watch the dolphins swim just inches below your feet, then burst through the surface and give a wave with their fins.
There are programs for all ages, including the Touch & Feed and Dolphin Designs programs, which are great for smaller children and can be done at the edge of the tanks.
For more information about swimming with dolphins and the conservation center at Marineland, visit www.marineland.net.