Swimming with dolphins and stingrays

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Fyllis Hockman

The author, Fyllis Hockman, gets a kiss from her new dolphin friend at the Sea Academy in Curacao. The program allows also visitors to get close-up encounters with stingrays, tropical fish and sea lions.
Photo by Victor Block

Their bodies were sleek and graceful, the skin soft to the touch, their demeanor welcoming even if a bit skeptical. Still, they were more used to this than I was. But I spread my arms out as instructed and flapped them in the water.

Romeo and Paski, two of my dolphin snorkeling companions, then swam under my outstretched limbs, and we laid back into the water as though sunbathing. Then we went back to free swim.

Such is one of the many highlights at the Dolphin Academy, one of several up-close-and-personal animal encounters available at the Sea Aquarium on the Caribbean island of Curacao.

Now I don’t usually like watching animals perform tricks that are alien to their DNA for the amusement of tourists. But at the Dolphin Academy, the residents are treated with such loving care, I swam alongside them with minimal guilt.

According to trainer George, the dolphins are the first priority.

“They are on a very light work schedule and every day; it varies. And if for any reason they don’t want to perform — perhaps they’re preoccupied with a personal family situation [I didn’t pursue that] — the program is called off,” he said.

As if on cue, a participant related a past experience in which dolphins used to give rides to people holding onto their fins. Nope, not any more — it was determined that it was too damaging to their dorsal fins, so it was stopped years ago.

Prior to the snorkel, George instructed us on how to proceed: be patient; let them come to you; stroke them along their flanks. He taught us how to encourage the dolphin to come alongside us and then free dive in unison.

Romeo and I shared a number of shallow dives together, and in parting he gave me a kiss. OK, so he did it because he got a fish, but still I thought he was actually smiling at me at the time.

Snorkeling with Herbie

That was only the start of my very personal connection with sea life in Curacao. My next encounter took me even further underwater.

I’ve been snorkeling before — but never in the past did the fish swarm to me rather than my having to swim out to them. But then again I don’t usually carry a supply of squiggly little sardines with me when I go, while at the same time making meaningful eye contact. Well, meaningful to me anyway.

At the Animal Encounters experience, interacting directly with a variety of denizens of the deep is the whole purpose. So there I was co-mingling with tarpon, common snook, French grunts, permit fish, horseeyed jack and so many sting rays that I felt covered most of the time by a soft lightweight blanket caressing my body — only this blanket wanted to be fed fish, which it ate with its underbelly.

Herbie — the 400-pound goliath grouper who has been king of the hill here for over 30 years — pretty much just observed the proceedings. No one messes with Herbie.

The playful sea lion

Back on land, my next animal rendezvous was of a more playful nature. I got to meet and greet Snapper, the sea lion. I learned the difference between sea lions and seals and watched Snapper do a seal imitation as he flopped along on his belly.

Sea lions are much more genteel when they move — they walk on all fours. Using flippers, of course, but still…

Snapper had a bit to say during our tete-a-tete, but his vocalization unfortunately resembled a very loud, deep belch that tended to continue long after it was socially acceptable to do so.

But he was very cute — and, like Romeo, very affectionate. Yup, I got another kiss. Between the two, I got more action that weekend than I remember occurring at the height of my dating career.

For more information about the aquarium and its aquatic experiences, visit www.royalseaquariumresort.com/curacao-sea-aquarium.asp.