Swimming with Dolphins

”Shark, shark! Get out of the water”, some kids were yelling from the shores of Byron Bay in Northern New South Wales, where I have been religiously swimming laps for over 20 years. Coming to a splashing halt my heart missed a beat and I quickly realised that I had fallen for a favourite Aussie prank. Half submerged about 20 meters ahead of me, a playful dolphin surfing the small swells of the ocean moved towards me, flipped out of the water, so I could see his full splendour and then swam back towards deeper waters.

dolphin splashWow!  That’s the closest I had ever been to a dolphin. Relieved it wasn’t a shark, I thanked the gods and wished that maybe one day I could get a little closer to one of the most beloved sea creatures of our time. Well unknowingly, that little wish turned into reality when some years later I arrived at Lovina, on the north coast of Bali.

As I looked out to Lovina Bay well known for the dawn boat trips to see the dolphins, I could understand why this bay with the unique combination of the mountains and the ocean was a haven for these friendly sea mammals to gather. Yet no one could assure me that I would be able to swim with them and I had been warned that the boats sometimes can scare them away. What I was seeking was a more intimate contact than just viewing a dolphin from a distance, an experience that would bring me ‘eye to eye’ with this magnificent sea creature.
In Lovina I chose to stay at The Melka Excelsior Resort. It is unlike any other hotel in Bali in that it offers “dolphin therapy”, an experimental program  that reportedly helps heal a wide variety of ailments, including neurological disorders such as autism, Down's syndrome, ADHD, muscular paralysis, and depression. Carla Henco founder of "Bunbury Dolphin Therapy", in Western Australia, worked with wild dolphins, running the program for six years with exceptional results for people with all kinds of disabilities. In February 2007 Carla brought her expertise to Melka Excelsior Hotel Resort and since then she has helped the children and adults with special needs that came to Melka, building up a therapy structure in cooperation with other therapists from all over the world. Angka, one of the therapists at the hotel, explained to me that she has worked with children suffering from autism and cerebral palsy. She observed that only after 3 days of therapy the cerebral palsy child was able to unclench his cramped fist for the first time ever.

I have always loved the sea, after all that’s where I spent most of my childhood and ever since my  encounter in the open sea waters what better way to pay homage to a sacred sea creature but to get to know one through the experts who work and study the dolphins.

During my stay, I met an Eskimo family, return guests, who had come from the Arctic Circle with their autistic son to continue Dolphin therapy. They were extremely happy with the results as their eleven year old son had never been able to speak nor make any audible sound. Their son showed enormous improvement after the therapy; he was capable of producing sounds; his movements became more coordinated and less frenzied and he was generally calmer and more focused when spoken to. It is believed that it’s the sonar activity of the dolphin that helps promote healing. Although it is still not fully understood research continues in many parts of the world.

dolphin grabAccording to Dr Cole, Chairman of the Aqua thought Foundation; swimming with dolphins can create physiological cell and tissue change in the body. He explains that dolphins have natural sonar, emitting ultrasound waves to localise things and to communicate, a process called "echolocation". Sounds emitted by the dolphins are so intense that that they can cause "cavitations": they create holes in the molecular structure of fluids and soft tissues. Cole believes that the dolphins' signal frequencies can have a profound effect on the human brain by modifying the brainwave activity.

Results of EEG tests carried out on people who experienced the echolocation showed that the dominant human brain frequency drops from beta to alpha. It was also noted that both sides of the brain enter into synchronisation which means there is a far better communication between the left and right sides of the brain, this is an uncommon neurological state, which is typically associated with heightened awareness and increased learning ability.

At Melka Resort I met 3 dolphins in their care, Gombloh, Lucin, John all strong and healthy, and lots of love from their careers. The therapists record and compile statistics on the ailments that seem to respond to Dolphin therapy. Angka, the therapist in charge, describes that during the therapy sessions the dolphins move in closely and touch the areas of the body that are unwell as if pointing them out.

Knowing that I might never experience the ‘close encounter’ of swimming with dolphins in their natural habitat, I am content enough to join them in the swimming pool. Strict hygiene rules need to be adhered to before entering the Dolphins pool. A life jacket is also required and I am informed of dolphin protocol. I enter the water calmly floating on my belly side and wait until John, one of the male Dolphins was introduced to me. He needs to become accustomed to my presence in his territory. He is over two meters long and approaches floating parallel to me. John is watching me carefully, tilting his head slightly to glimpse at me with one eye, as generally their eyes are kept submerged in the water.

dolphin encounterMy eyes meet his one. A very curious, shy but warm gaze is upon me. I am hoping I also transmit warmth, calm and respect towards him, but when you are that close to a large sea creature you can’t help feeling a little apprehensive. Instinctively, I start to hum gently and release a low deep Om mantra...humming sounds emit soothing soundwaves and renders one calm.  Well, I guess that’s my way of communicating with this beautiful creature of the sea, hoping he will like it. John takes his time and just rests there, eyeing me until the humming stops. I feel he is still studying me. He looks timid, unsure and then swims away. This is usual with dolphins and the trainer needs to coax him back. At the same time, I need to gently swim towards him, keeping my legs together without making any vigorous movements with my arms. Not too close but halfway, I stay still, floating front down, waiting for his next move. And then, ever so gently, John moves under me and brushes against my belly.  This delicate touch from his sleek body is our first contact. Wow! Its happening, the play, the dance, just me and John the dolphin!

dolphin rideI already feel so overwhelmed that, even if this had been my only experience of the dolphin’s touch, it would have been enough to make my experience complete.  Such energy force; pure muscle and so strong, yet John is as graceful as a ballet dancer.  Again and again John swirls around me, each time his control delicate and sensitive. “You can touch him” calls his trainer. I, as gentle and timid as John is, slide my hand over his body once, then twice, and each time he approaches I make contact until the moment I can grab him and go for a short but exuberant ride. He responds to the play and frolics all around me. Oh the joy! He is starting to get excited now and the play continues but his movements remain precise and cautious, as if considering the frailty of his playmate and I never feel anxious just joyously  immersed in the experience of just being with this intelligent and gentle creature.

I was lucky to be able to enjoy a solo swim with him. Usually swimming procedures require two people be present at any one time but as I was on my own, I had the privilege of a ‘one on one’, and the privilege of feeding him. Even then, John takes the fish into his mouth so gracefully.  What sensitivity and intelligence dolphins display and what magic they impart!
Dolphin therapy was started in the early seventies by Dr Betsy Smith, an educational anthropologist who noticed the therapeutical effects of dolphins on her disabled brother. A few years later dolphin therapy was developed by Dr Nathanson at the Dolphin Human Therapy centre in Florida U.S.A.,  Dr Nathanson studied the interaction between dolphins and children with Down's syndrome and, as he obtained good results, more centres opened worldwide. Between 1989 and 1994 more than 500 children with special needs had the opportunity to join Dr. Nathansons program.

Although there is ongoing research in universities and dolphin research centres the evidence that dolphin therapy works still remains anecdotal. But what counts is what is experienced by all those people that keep returning for the Dolphin Therapy. Their experience seems to bring joy and health into their lives whether for themselves or their children they all sincerely advocate that dolphins have healing powers.

For my part, I can add that for days after my experience with John the dolphin I perceived an exhilarating calm settle within me and it seemed to continue for some weeks thereafter. Just the memory of the experience seems to trigger all those healthy positive endorphins all over again, generally a wellness of being and a continuous stream of love seemed to predominate, leaving me fulfilled and wanting for nothing. Except perhaps, as another little wish floats by, swimming with dolphins in their natural habitat..mmm...

wild dolphin jump