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Dolphin Diary

By Hilary Saunders, Age 10

Virginia Beach, Virginia

I LOVE DOLPHINS! I have loved dolphins for as long as I can remember. When I was 5 years old, my mom took me to Dolphin Research Center (DRC) in Florida to swim with the dolphins. It was love at first sight! I swam with Aleta and Merina, and I met Talon, the youngest dolphin living there at the time. Later, I found out about the DRC volunteer program. Volunteers help the staff and trainers do all kinds of things. They pick up trash, sort recyclables, feed the birds, and clean fish buckets. And they get to hang out with the dolphins every day. I wanted to be a volunteer more than anything, but volunteers had to be 18 years old. Mom called DRC and explained how much I loved dolphins, and finally they said we could submit applications. Eventually, we were allowed to go to DRC as a mother-daughter team for the month of August 1997! It was fantastic! We went back again the next summer. Here are some excerpts from my journal as a DRC Volunteer in August 1998.

Monday, August 03, 1998 My first day back at DRC! I thought this day would never arrive! I saw all my friends: dolphin and human.

Tuesday, August 04, 1998 This afternoon, I helped clean out seaweed in Talon and AJ's lagoon. Seaweed builds up really quickly and blocks the water flow, so the water gets really hot. We clear out the seaweed so the dolphins can have cooler water. I liked doing something that makes life better for the dolphins.

Wednesday, August 13, 1998 Last summer, I learned how to observe baby Pax interacting with the other dolphins in his lagoon. DRC collects information like this for all new baby dolphins. This year, the research continues with baby Pandora. I watch the dolphins for 15 seconds at a time. Every time I see Pandora with another dolphin, I say, for example, "Aleta with baby." The recorder makes a note every time the baby is observed with a dolphin. This is important research because it tells the trainers about how dolphins care for their young and how they relate to other dolphins.

Thursday, August 14, 1998 Today was a special day. Mom purchased me swim time with Talon and his best friend, AJ! Talon let me hold onto his dorsal fin and took me for a ride. As I floated in the water, he nudged his snout against my feet and pushed me around the lagoon. He gave me lots of backrubs and kisses! He's so sweet!

Monday, August 18, 1998 Today I helped with a research project called Match the Sample. Here's how it works: The trainer and two volunteers go out on the dock. There are three objects, such as a spoon, a cup, and a piece of pipe attached to sticks. The trainer puts one object in the water, and the dolphin uses its echolocation to figure out what it is. Then the trainer puts two objects into the water--the one the dolphin saw first and another one. To make a match, the dolphin nudges the one it saw the first time. We record how many correct matches the dolphin made. This tells the trainers a lot about dolphin intelligence.

Friday, August 22, 1998 They saved the best for last--a signal session! That's when a volunteer gives signals for a dolphin to do certain behaviors. I got to have my signal session with Talon! I asked him to get me a present (seaweed, of course), give me a handshake, do back dives, and perform lots of other behaviors. He understood all of my communications and did a great job! I always hate to say goodbye, but I know I'll be back next year, if not sooner!

I can't wait 'til my next visit! The next time I visit DRC I hope to conduct some research of my own. Some ideas I have: Two of the adult male dolphins are pair-bonded. This means they are best friends and never want to be separated. Two of the younger male dolphins seem to be good buddies. I would like to observe the two pairs to compare how much time they spend together. I might even be able to predict whether or not the two teenagers will become pair-bonded as adults. I want to put several different toys in the lagoon, such as a Hula-Hoop, rings, and a ball, to see whether the dolphins choose the same toys each time and to see whether different dolphins prefer different toys.

If you would like information about becoming a volunteer at Dolphin Research Center, or if you have questions or requests, write to Volunteer Coordinator, Dolphin Research Center, P.O. Box 522875, Marathon Shores, Florida 33052, USA. Or call the volunteer coordinator at (305) 289-1121. You can also visit the center's Web site by clicking on the icon below.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 1999 issue of Dragonfly magazine. Watch Hilary on DragonflyTV this spring!

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