Day 2
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June 6th, 10:20 PM

Today was the best day of my life. Really. I have no idea how I’m going to put into words what I experienced today. I can’t really. I’ll start from the beginning…

I got up at 6:15 AM so I had lots of time to get ready. We left the house (Sean, Colin, Jane, Zelecia, Katie, Steve and myself) at about 7:30 to head for the bus. "The bus", as it’s called here in Hawaii (it’s actually written on the side), was very well filled when we got in, but we still managed to get seats in the back. It was my first time in an air-conditioned bus; a welcome thing in the 85 degree heat with me dragging a hundred pounds of laptops and camera equipment around with me. I think I’ll leave the laptop at the house tomorrow.

"The Bus"
Creative name, don't you think?
As we walked from the bus stop, I could feel the excitement building in me. I had never even seen a bottlenose dolphin before, and today I might even have a chance to work with one. Imagine that!

The facility is right smack dab in the middle of a marina and a beach, with a single road running beside it heading towards the marina and some parking. The ocean appears to be all around it on the diamondhead side (a Hawaiian custom, showing direction towards the diamondhead volcano). The surf was pounding all around on the shore as it ran through the shallow reefs out in the beach that surrounded the facility. This was definitely a unique facility, no question about it. We found our way to the front door, and rang the doorbell. We could hear dolphins squeaking occasionally in the background, including Hiapo (I think) whistling his usual signature whistle. Someone came and opened the door for all of us, and our experience had started.

We walked into the facility, taking in everything we could as we walked to the sort of main mauka (north) area of the facility. We walked by the mauka tank, seeing at first nothing but a couple of light green windows in the side of the mauka tank (front tank). Soon enough, two of the dolphins were there to check us out. Sean, being the only one of us who knew anything about the dolphins, was quick to go up to the tank and say hi. Us new participants weren’t supposed to interact with the dolphins until we knew how to react to their signs of aggression (sudden head bobbing mostly). Sean was playing the "gravity" game in the window with the two dolphins, where he would drop a ball from the top of the window and the dolphins would follow it right to the bottom. I guess they like it, at least according to a few people I asked. It was really hard not to go up to the window and try to play with them too. They really are incredibly cute animals. I found myself saying things like that out loud, but I could tell that I wasn’t the only one who thought that way.

Slowly others started to show up and give us intros into the various parts of the facility. Scott gave us all the full tour, showing all the offices, the tower, the back lanai (deck), the fish room, the conference room, and all the rest. After that, we met over in the front lanai area for pre-session and introduction to everybody that would be working there that day. After all 20 or so people had introduced themselves (and yes, that’s a lot of people for the size of the facility), they very quickly listed the people assigned to the 2 morning sessions. Naturally, we weren’t on the list, since we had no idea how to do anything at that point.

The first session was really cool to watch. Naturally, I had never seen anyone work with these animals before given I hadn’t even seen a bottlenose dolphin an hour before this. The two trainers we could see from the back lanai were doing traditional session stuff with two of the dolphins, jumps, rolls, summersaults, etc. The first thing I noticed was just how vocal both the trainers and the dolphins were, especially the dolphins. I was used to the Vancouver Aquarium where the animals did their maneuver and came back silently, but not these guys. They were very very loud, not that I’m complaining. It was probably the coolest sound I’ve ever heard - so complex yet so simple at the same time, all those clicks and whistles. The trainers were constantly yelling "yeaaaaay! That was great! My goodness!" and similar phrases whenever the dolphins did something right. It’s really cool to watch it too. If one of the dolphins does something with lots of energy and really puts an effort into it, they’re really obviously proud of themselves when they come back to their trainers, squeaking and clicking loudly (especially Pheonix, who seems particularly loud).

During the first and second sessions, they did a cross modal research session, or echolocation study, with Elele and Hiapo (the kids, as they’re called, since they’re only 15 years old). They put an object into a black box with a plexi-glass front (which is also blacked out) and tell the dolphin to figure out which object is inside the box by choosing from a list of choices above the water. The term "cross modal" refers to matching objects between senses, in this case, sight and echolocation. The possibilities are held out on the side of the tank above the water by a few people (wearing blacked out goggles so the dolphin can’t see their eyes), and the dolphin has to choose one based on what it saw using it’s echolocation. Elele only missed one out of 6 or 8 trials, and Hiapo missed only one as well out of 5 or so trials. Elele’s trials included very complex objects constructed out of PVC plastic and included three possible answers and a bobber used to show ‘none of the above’. Elele missed one once, but you could tell she wasn’t totally sure about whether or not to chose the one that was actually in the box. She went past the first two without pause, but she did kind of a double take on the correct answer. Nonetheless, she chose the ‘none of the above’. Oh well. She did very well other than that one. Hiapo’s trials only included simple objects, like a big round metal dish and a clay pot and only two possible answers instead of three with the none of the above. Dr. Adam Pack told me there were differences in how each dolphin did the test because Elele had been doing it for a very long time, while Hiapo was fairly new to it and they were warming him up to it.

The other research they did in the sessions was called angular resolution tests. In that one, they position sets of 4 and 2 plastic bars closer and closer together
Dr. Pack giving us a lecture
Dr. Pack giving the participants a lecture (click for bigger picture)
until the dolphin cannot tell which side has four bars, and which side has two bars. This apparently shows just how finite the echolocation sense in dolphins actually is. I didn’t actually watch that research session, so I don’t know much more than that at this point.

In between these sessions, Dr. Pack gave us an introduction into dolphin characteristics and stuff that the lab was studying at that time. It was actually really interesting, but it’d be hard for me to type in this journal everything he said.

Something interesting happened after the first session too. Someone had to go INTO the dolphin tank to lift the big black box out, so Dr. Pack pretty well just jumped in the water and lifted the box out while the trainers were still working with the dolphins. He made it clear he was going in and the trainers were aware of it, but it was certainly not what I had expected to see happen. Then he started to swim over to the dolphins! I had come to the facility with the impression that no one ever entered the water with the animals, but apparently not. The trainers started saying, "look who’s in here! Go see him!", and the dolphins just casually floated over to him, like nothing strange was happening. I expected the dolphins to be kind of surprised by what was happening, but I found out later that this happens fairly often. I also found out that Dr. Pack is sort of "the kids" father, so they really know him well. Only very long time people at the institute are allowed to enter the water with the dolphins like Dr. Pack did, with good reason.

After Dr. Pack’s lecture, we got a number of lectures into dolphin identification, dolphin anatomy, hand signals, and lots of conversations with senior members. The identification will surely take some time to develop, but so far I’ve worked out the following guidelines. Akeakamai has a triangular notch in her tail fluke and a notch on her mouth on her right side, while Pheonix has a wave-like notch in her tail fluke and more defined gray colouring going from her melon to her eye. Hiapo, being the only male, is the only one with a slightly bent over dorsal fin, and he also has a black dot in front of his left eye and has overlapping skin in the middle of his tail fluke. Everyone says he’s the most physically perfect dolphin there as far as appearance goes. Elele has freckles all over her belly and her face, has a number of black lines that come down from the center of her melon to her eye (which look like teeth scrapes from early in her life), and a very well shaped tail fluke (much more defined than Hiapo’s straight-edged fluke). I’m sure I’ll figure it out eventually.

In the 3rd session they were doing a vigilance test, where they test Akeakamai’s memory for a maneuver she just did. They would give Ake a command, she would do it, they would give her the "pay attention" signal for a specific amount of time, and then ask her to do the maneuver she just did. She did something like 15 trials with not a single error… pretty good if you ask me, and some of the waits were as long as two minutes. When she was told to pay attention, she usually started quietly squeaking and bobbing her head slightly, almost like she was counting. She also seemed to quietly mimic what she just did, like she was repeating to herself what she did so she could remember. It was really neat to see.

After the third session, the real fun started. Apparently, we were actually going to have a quick local with one of the animals (that’s what they call it when you interact with one of the animals). I wasn’t expecting to do our first local until either tomorrow or even later than that, but I certainly wasn’t disappointed. I quickly set up my video camera on the corner of the tank and met with Carol, the trainer who would give Zelecia, Katie, and myself our local. I had been speaking with Carol during most of the day when she was working with one of the dolphins, asking her questions about what the dolphin was doing and she always answered me the best she could. We’d be working with Hiapo, the male, who Carol seemed to think highly of. She told us what we’d be doing, went over the hand signals once more, and assured us we could ask him to do whatever maneuvers we wanted (out of the ones we knew, of course). Surprisingly, I was managing to keep calm. Here’s something I’ve been waiting my whole life to do, and I wasn’t particularly nervous. Strange, I thought I’d be throwing up by now.

Katie was the first to work with Hiapo, then Zelecia got a chance, and then came my turn. Carol told Hiapo I was stepping up the platform, and up I came.
Katie working with Hiapo
Katie (right) working with Haipo for the first time (click for bigger picture)
Immediately I could tell Haipo was sizing me up, looking me right in the eye. My mind was numb at this point.I could still remember a few of the signs, but most of them were completely lost. I told him to do a few things, and then Carol had Hiapo roll over on his side and show me his various identifying marks. Then I got to touch him… something I had dreamed about for as long as I can remember. WOW. He felt completely different than anything I had ever felt before. I was blown away. If I were to compare it to anything, I’d say it’s probably closest to one of those vinyl binders with the lines in it, only made of wet chalk. He was very rough feeling along the neck section where he probably flexes a lot and has strech marks. His dorsal fin and tail flukes felt more like wet chalk than anything else, with sort of a slight friction but still very smooth. The big vein in his tail fluke was very obvious when you looked up close. Apparently, dolphins prefer not to be touched in their peduncle area (the tail section behind the dorsal fin) since that kind of touching is usually sexual for them, so I stayed away from there.

I told him to do a few more maneuvers, but I messed up on one of them. He gave me a head bob showing annoyance (or more likely he was just trying to do what he thought I told him), but Carol didn’t think it was a real problem, so we continued. I gave him a few more signals, a few more fish, and soon enough I was finished. Afterwards, I felt so giddy and content that I could have danced around the facility. It was simply the most amazing experience of my life, and I know it will only get better the next time.

Now here it is, 12:30AM, and I have to be up at 6AM. I should probably go to bed now…

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