By Barbara Falconer Newhall
Last weekend I watched the trailer for the CNN documentary “Blackfish” and saw a Sea World trainer attacked and pulled underwater by an out-of-control killer whale. I had to wonder — could that have been me?
“Blackfish” traces the deadly history of killer whales at places like Sea World, and watching that footage brought back memories of the day I found myself in a tank of water with a killer whale cousin — a 1400-pound pilot whale named Koko.
It was 1979. I was young and fearless.
And like a lot of people, I entertained some big fat romantic notions about the soulfulness of dolphins. (Anybody remember the 1960s TV show “Flipper?”) I wanted to meet one of those “highly evolved” animals personally. I wanted to get in the water with one, chat with one.
I was a staffer at the San Francisco Chronicle at the time, so all I had to do to get myself face-to-face with a dolphin was pick up the phone, call Marine World-Africa USA in nearby Redwood City — and ask.
Which I did.
They said yes.
What they didn’t say was that there would be a whale in the tank. And that their dolphins weren’t exactly Flipper.
My Day With the Dolphins
By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The San Francisco Chronicle, May 3, 1979
“Are you scared?” one of the dolphin trainers had asked while I was still on dry land.
“Yes,” I said.
“Maybe you’re just excited. Sometimes it feels the same.”
No, I was scared. What had promised to be a blithe underwater romp with a couple of salt water puppy dogs had become an adventure of the first order.
Earlier I had telephoned Marine World-Africa USA in Redwood City and asked if I might take a swim with one of their dolphins, something I had yearned to do for years.
My request had been granted – all too readily, it now seemed – and on this cold, rainy spring morning, I found myself paddling timidly around a tank of 68-degree water, with two dolphins taking what I considered to be not very genteel nibbles at my hand. On the other side of the tank
lurked 1400 pounds of flesh, bone and blubber in the form of a pilot whale named Koko. I was ungainly in borrowed wet suit, fins and weight belt, and a tube ran from my mouth to a tank of air on the deck.
I had come here to find out if dolphins were the bright, gentle creatures portrayed by the “Flipper” TV series of the ’60s or whether possibly there was an “alien intelligence” at work in them, a mind equal to or superior to that of my own species.
But things were not turning out as I had expected. First of all, there was the whale in the tank.
And secondly – I was quickly finding out – dolphins are not exactly pussycats. “We may have to take you out after about five minutes,” Marine World officials had warned. “They don’t mean to hurt you, but they play rough,”
There were three bottle-nosed dolphins – weighing a total of 975 pounds – in this tank, along with Koko, who measured 16 ¾ feet, head to flukes. “An animated building,” as Don Reed, the head diver at Marine World, likes to call him. But Koko was shy, I was promised, “He’ll stay on the other side of the tank.”
Reed, who is a professional scuba diver, not a trainer, was in the water with me as my guide. Rarely do Marine World’s dolphin trainers condescend to go into the dolphins’ own watery environment, so only the divers, the “underwater janitors” who clean the tanks, feed the sharks and catch the animals when they’re in need of medical attention, really know what the dolphins are like underwater.
The Dolphins Check Me Out
Spock and his mate, Shiloh, were the first to investigate the clumsy creature in the borrowed wet suit who had ventured into their tank that morning. Together they glided past me, gracefully and so much in unison that their right eyes, gazing into mine, could have belonged to the same animal.
They swam around and around, opening their mouths to show me their teeth as they passed. I was being hazed, I thought. They were trying to find out how much I could take.
“If they nudge you, don’t nudge them back,” Reed had cautioned. They would think I was playing and get rough with me.
So I kept my arms close to my body, tried not to thrash around and listened for the dolphin sounds I had read about.
Sure enough, there was a faint high-pitched squeal and an equally faint series of clicks, like a clock ticking double-time. The dolphins, I was certain were carrying on a conversation. I was also certain that the conversation was not so much with me, as I had hoped, as it was about me.
A Very Big Whale
Reed pointed over my shoulder, and there, not two feet away, was Koko. His head was black, massive and blunt, and it looked for all the world like a wrecker’s ball. He was coming toward me.
I considered my options. I could make a beeline for the surface, flail around there and make myself a really appealing target for Koko and his pals. Or I could do as I had been instructed. Breathe deeply. Relax. Pretend that I was in my own bathtub and that Koko was just a bar of Ivory soap floating my way.
That is what I did. Koko’s head slid past me; his eye, about the size of a silver dollar, met mine. Then there was a long, sleek expanse of black.
It had become clear that Koko meant me no harm, but could his head, which was now 15 feet away, know where his flukes were? Would I be able to keep my feet under control? I had been told not to pet Koko. If I kicked him what would he do?
I breathed and relaxed some more. Koko’s flukes made a deft flip, missing my wayward fins by a mere 18 inches and he was gone.
I turned and looked toward Reed’s comforting presence and realized how partial I was to my own species.
Spock came very close. He put his beak to my face mask, opened his mouth and bleated like a kitten.
“Do you like me?” I wondered. “I like you.”
Spock and I had been introduced earlier by Deirdre Ballou, one of the trainers, as she and I
stood together on the deck. Spock swam up to her, propped his chin, if you can call it that, on the deck at her feet and smiled the perennial bottle-nosed dolphin smile.
Then he turned his head my way and opened his mouth, revealing neat rows of pointed teeth.
Spock “used to be a real shy little fellow. Now he’s the old-timer,” Ballou said fondly, putting her hand around his jaw and stroking his gums with her thumb. “Do you want to pet him? It’s OK.”
I wasn’t sure Spock and I knew each other well enough for that. He might appreciate a few polite preliminaries. And he did have teeth.
Cautiously, I rubbed the top of his head. His skin was firm and slippery, and felt, more than anything else, like the surface of a wet eggplant.
Those Sensual, Sexual Dolphins
Now, in the water, Spock rolled over and nudged me gently. I put out my elbow – the only part of my body not covered by coarse wet suit material – and stroked him with it as he glided by. He swam by again and again, turning his belly up and allowing me to reach out and touch him.
Dolphins, I had been warned, are very tactile – sexual, to be precise – and, according to Reed, humans often become the object of their highly active libidos. When Reed is cleaning the dolphin tank, the dolphins, “males and females, will come over and make themselves happy with you,” he said. “You just sort of put up with it” and keep on working.
But Reed had decided that such goings on were too “gross” and much too dangerous for the likes of me. If a dolphin “gets really aroused,” he said, “he doesn’t care. He has no inhibitions. He’ll roll you around the tank like a pencil.”
So, when Reed saw Spock nudging my knees with his beak, he signaled me to get out of the tank.
“You did good,” Reed said to me afterwards. But did they like me, I wanted to know, and I
telephoned Reed the next day to find out.
He was polite. “I think so. Otherwise they would have been a little rougher.”
Still, “they were giving a little bit of open mouth action, which means ‘hands off, we don’t know each other.’”
You can’t expect any of the animals in that tank to let you be intimate with them, hug them, after just a few hours’ acquaintance, he said. It takes a long time to get to know a dolphin.
© 1979 The San Francisco Chronicle, reprinted by permission
CNN has scheduled rebroadcasts of “Blackfish” Nov. 2 – 4.
Marine World-Africa USA moved to Vallejo, Calif., in the ’80s and is now Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. My experience with Spock, Shiloh and Koko notwithstanding, the Six Flags website now assures its guests that swimming with its dolphins is a perfectly safe and reasonable thing to do. Organizations like PETA and the Orca Project say the practice is inhumane and dangerous to dolphins and humans alike.
John O’Hara, a Chronicle staff photographer at the time of this story, is now an equestrian photographer. An experienced scuba diver, he was in the water taking the photos you see here. “Diving with the dolphins was fun,” he emails. The Marine World staff “made me get out of the water when they started to pass closer and closer, and at what seemed to be the speed of light.”
Don Reed went on to write a book about his 15 years as a diver at Marine World.