The Dolphins: An Experience Without Sight by Quyn Lê Erichsen, M.Ed., RCC

Quyn kissing the dolphin in Cancun

Quyn kissing the dolphin

I want to share with you my recent experience with the dolphins in Cancun during our honeymoon trip from the perspective of a blind person. Although I often have a very difficult time describing details in English in a colourful way, however I hope I can capture the experience as vividly as I can in this blog.

About 12 years ago, I went to SeaWorld in Orlando Florida where they featured whale performances and dolphin shows. Although some of my relatives described the different amazing tricks and performances that the whales and the dolphins were doing, the concepts were nevertheless abstract to me at best. However my direct experience with the dolphins recently was very real, incredible and memorable!

My husband, Hans, and I signed up for a half-hour experience with the dolphins in Cancun. We also had the option of signing up for one hour, but I wasn’t sure whether I could handle it for that long.

One of the first things that really surprised me was that we were going to interact with the dolphins in the pool. Somehow I had the image in my head that we would interact with the dolphins on a beach in the ocean, perhaps in a gated area. I now realize how silly a thought that was. If the dolphins in the ocean, it would probably be very difficult to train them.  This is one of the shortcomings about being blind. Because of not being able to see, sometimes I have the wrong images in my head about how things are or how they work. Usually once I learn about how certain things work, I just have to laugh at myself. Hans, is very good at explaining things to me without making me feel clueless.

As we entered one of the pools, I noticed that the pool had salty water. Although this shouldn’t surprise me, I nevertheless was surprised, as I always thought that all pools have non-salty water. Hans explained to me that the salty water is essential for the dolphins to live in.

As we entered the deep end of the pool, I started to panic, even though I had my life jacket on. I am not a swimmer at all. Admittedly, I have a water phobia, which had probably stemmed from being lost for 10 days in the sea during our boat journey to escape Vietnam. As soon as water started to pass my mouth, I panicked, groping my hands to reach out for Hans’ hands. I then told myself “Everything is going to be okay. I won’t drown… Breathe slowly…” This seemed to really help calm me down.

We then stood on a more shallow part of the pool, waiting for our turn to interact with the dolphins. Then an adult dolphins passed by right in front of us. Hans told me to reach out to touch the dolphin. As I reached one of my hands out to touch the dolphin, I accidentally touched the trainer’s butt. Then I was able to touch the dolphin on her back. Again, I was very surprised by the feel of the dolphin. I expected a fishy, slimy feeling as I would feel on smaller fish. That wasn’t the case at all. The dolphin felt very long. Her skin felt rubbery, almost felt like a rubber tube.

The dolphin’s body wasn’t as flat and wide as I expected. Rather, her body felt more round and plump. I wished I could wrap my arms around her entire body to see how big she really was. As I trailed my hand along her back, I started to touch her tail. One French man was speaking broken English to Hans to explain to him that I should avoid touching the tail, as it is very strong and might hurt me.

Then a two-year-old baby dolphin came by. I reached out my hand and touched her mouth. Again, it felt very different. Her mouth was closed. I remember I used to meet a man whose arm was damaged right past his elbow. While touching the closed mouth of this baby dolphin, it felt similar to touching that man’s arm. I then quickly withdrew my hand, remembering what the trainer said earlier about not touching the baby’s mouth because he/she might bite. The trainer explained that the adult dolphins have been trained enough and so they wouldn’t bite. However the baby ones might, because they haven’t been trained long enough.

We were given a few choices to interact with the dolphins. One choice was called the Foot Push where the dolphin pushes you on your feet and you would raise up out of the water to fly like a superman. The other choice was the Belly Ride where you would ride on the belly of the dolphin, with the dolphin swimming backward across the pool while you hanging onto her fins. And another choice was the Boogie Push, where you lie on a boogie board and the dolphin pushes you across the pool. Hans and I chose the Belly Ride because we wanted to have direct contact with the dolphins.

I found the sounds the dolphins made to be very amusing. At some point, they would make a very high pitch sound, almost like the calls of some big birds. Yet at some other points, they sounded like ducks to me.

One dolphin was jumping up in the air, Hans described to me. As she was in the air, she made a few spins. We all clapped and cheered. Then she went up to the trainer, making a very cute sound, as if to say “I did it, now feed me!”

Hans and I were standing quite close to the trainer. As the trainer had the fish, the dolphins were eager to come to him. Thus I got a few chances to touch the different dolphins. Every time I reached my hand out to touch a dolphin, I seemed to touch the trainer’s body or butt first. Probably the trainer was initially wondering why I kept touching his body or his bum!

As other people in our group were taking turn interacting with the dolphins, Hans was showing to me how I would position for the Belly Ride. He placed my right hand on my chest, and extended my left arm out in front of me. Each of us had to swim out to the middle of the pool to wait for the dolphin to come to us. Once the dolphin approaches me, Hans explained, I would reach out my hands to find her fins then hang on to them. The dolphin then would bring me back to where I started.

Hans then realized that I might have a hard time swimming out into the pool by myself, as I am not a swimmer and I get disoriented in the water. Thus before it was my turn, Hans went up to the trainer and explained to him that I am blind and that he needed to swim out to the middle of the pool with me. The trainer hesitated at first, probably imagining in his head how that would work. He thought that Hans wanted to swim along with me and the dolphin, which might confuse the dolphin. He went to check with his boss. Upon his return, the trainer indicated that it wouldn’t be a problem, as long as Hans would leave me after the dolphin comes to me.

Then it was my turn. “Let’s swim out!” Hans said excitedly. I quickly swam out into the pool with Hans. “Position yourself for the dolphin,“ Hans reminded me. I put my right hand on my chest and extended my left arm out in front of me. “I will leave you here now,” Hans was saying to me as he started to swim away from me. I waited nervously. I started to panic inside a bit, as I knew I was out in the deep end by myself. As I was trying hard to stay afloat, the trainer was saying something, I couldn’t quite comprehend his Mexican accent. “He’s talking to you,” Hans shouting out to me from the other end of the pool. “The dolphin is in front of you. Reach out to grab her fins!” Hans urged me.

I reached out, and there was the dolphin. She felt big to me. I found one of her fins with my right hand first. I then felt around with my left hand. And there, I found the other fin. This was another surprise to me. I always thought that a fish has only one fin and it’s located towards the tail. I couldn’t imagine that the dolphins also have fins on their sides.

As I hung onto the dolphin’s fins, she started to swim. She swam very fast. My heart was pounding. The water started rushing by us as she swam. I was laughing. Within about 15 seconds, we were at the other end of the pool where the rest of the group was waiting for us. People were cheering me on. “Give me your hands so I can help you!” the trainer said to me. I reached out my hands to grab the trainer’s hands and he helped me onto a step in the pool. By now, Hans already left that part of the pool and was waiting for the dolphin in the middle of the pool. The French man also helped me up the step of the pool too. He didn’t really speak English. “You okay?” he asked me in his broken English. “I am okay, thank you.” I assured him.

Even though I didn’t swim, my heart was pounding like crazy and I was breathless. Probably because the dolphin swam so fast. The whole thing was so fast. I wished I could swim with the dolphin longer. I wished that time would slow down so that I could savour the moment I swam with the dolphin.

The second activity was to do some kissing with the dolphins. Again, Hans showed me the position for this activity. He placed both of my hands on my chest, as if we go for blessing during the Catholic mass. He also told me to put my arms up after the dolphin kisses me and find her fins to shake them.

Then it was my turn. I swam out into the pool, but this time I didn’t have to swim as far. I placed both of my hands on my chest, waiting for the dolphin. I started to feel the dolphin’s mouth touching my cheek. At first I didn’t know that it was the dolphin’s mouth. I had the image in my head that the dolphin would open her mouth slightly to kiss me, almost like a dog or a cat would. Again, her mouth felt like a big arm. “The dolphin is kissing you,” Hans said excitedly. The trainer must have said something as well. I started to kiss the dolphin with my lips. I was very excited to feel the dolphin so close to me. I then put up my arms, found the dolphin’s fins and shook them. The dolphin then started to go away. “Let’s do another kiss,” the trainer said. So again, I placed both hands on my chest and I felt the dolphin kissing my cheek. I reached out my hands to feel her mouth and kissed her with my lips. I then put up my arms and shook her fins. Then it was over. I had to swim back. People were cheering me on enthusiastically. “I am here,” Hans was telling me to help me know where to swim back. He reach out his hand to pull my life jacket in to help me onto the step. He then started to swim out to kiss the dolphin.

Even though the actual interaction with the dolphin was too short for me, I still enjoyed the whole experience very much. It was quite something feeling the dolphins – their skin, their size and their intentional behaviours. It never ceases to amaze me how well-trained certain animals can be.

My experience with the dolphins was quite vulnerable. I had to learn to cope with being in the deep water by myself. I had to embrace the mystery of the experience, relying largely on Hans’ and the trainer’s descriptions. And lastly, the whole group observed how I carried out different tasks and interacted with the dolphins as a person without sight. Yet I felt very supported by my group, including the trainer and the French man, even though they were all strangers.

What really helped me was that I was mostly comfortable in my own skin. I wasn’t too concerned or too anxious about how people would judge me. I was more focused on the experience as well as how to keep me above water. I was very grateful to have such a wonderful experience and very grateful to interact with such playful and intelligent dolphins!

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