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A Day With Dolphins

By Susan Sullivan

It began when my parents took us on a boat trip in Calibogue Sound, South Carolina. As our three and four year old sons watched crabs being pulled up from the depths of the Sound, they also had their eyes cast out into the distance - the boat captain told them that they just might see a dolphin. They knew what dolphins looked like. They had seen them in books but never had they seen one in the wild. Finally, as the day drew to a close, a dolphin appeared off the stern. We watched as it came up for air and swam along side the boat. We all were captivated.

Over the past four years we have continued to learn about dolphins. We traveled to the Baltimore Aquarium and read books like Dolphins at Daybreak by Mary Pope Osbourne. We visited our local science museum to see the IMAX production of Dolphins and luckily Kathleen Dudzunski was going to be on hand to talk about the production of the movie and about her research with dolphins. We learned that Ms. Dudzinski devised a way to study dolphin communication underwater. She realized that sound under water traveled 4.5 times faster that it did above water. She was having difficulty extracting the different sounds made by different dolphins until she created a hydrophone that could record the sounds in a way that made each different sound discernable. Dolphins at Daybreak showed Ms. Dudzinski swimming near dolphins and studying them in the wild. We left that day literally awestruck by the beauty of these clearly intelligent creatures. We knew that somehow we would have to see them in action.

We were non-stop smiles and giggles from then on.As my husband John and I researched where we could take the boys to observe dolphins, we learned that we could actually swim with dolphins in captivity. We considered many factors while we were choosing a place to swim with dolphins. We wanted both of our children to go which meant that age restrictions had to include Ben and Max. We wanted to spend the entire day there and we wanted some other activities available. After talking to friends and doing some reading we decided on Discovery Cove in Orlando, Florida.

On the day of our swim we arrived at 8:00, were greeted and instructed where to get a wetsuit, snorkel, mask and towels. After a few wetsuit changes, all found the perfect fit and we were ready to go. Joined by two dolphin trainers, and another family, we headed over to the lagoon. We eagerly watched as a 6-year-old 600-pound dolphin named Hutch approached; no one mentioned the chilly water. As Hutch glided past we reached out our hands and touched his skin. It was hard and muscular, rubbery and smooth, strong and powerful. We were non-stop smiles and giggles from then on.

We learned some of the signals dolphin trainers use when working with and studying dolphins. Ben, who is eight, raised his hands and began to conduct an imaginary symphony and Hutch opened his mouth wide and began to sing. Six-year old Max cupped his hands together and placed them under the dolphins chin (rostrum), lifted the rostrum up and kissed it. When I kissed Hutch, he rolled over and played dead. John and the boys couldn’t stop laughing. I gave him a belly pat and sent it on its way.

We each agreed that swimming with dolphins was the most thrilling thing we had ever done as a family.Through using different hand signals Hutch replied with clicks and whistles, squeaks and songs. We were all surprised to learn that even though the mouth was open for many of the sounds we heard, the sounds actually originate in a nasal cavity located behind the blowhole. It was then that we were asked if we wanted to go for a swim. Ben and I went first. We swam out into the center of the lagoon and treaded water as Hutch approached. When he arrived, Ben was instructed to put his right hand on the base of the dorsal fin and to just let Hutch pull him. It was the ride of his life. Even from far behind I could hear his joyful laughter. And then it was my turn. I grabbed hold and was instantly propelled through the water. I had known that the flukes of a dolphin were strong but I could actually feel them moving up and down through the water as we traveled. It was the closest I have ever felt to actually flying. We couldn’t believe that after years of watching something that we could never be close to, we had just spent a morning with them; touching, playing, feeding, interacting and learning. We each agreed that swimming with dolphins was the most thrilling thing we had ever done as a family.

We still had three pools to explore and a bird aviary to find. Swimming with tropical fish, exploring the warm water trail, touching skates and hand feeding birds was a great way to spend the day but every once in a while one of us would say, “I wish we could be swimming with dolphins”.

This summer we’re heading back to South Carolina. We hope to see them again swimming along side the boat as we pull up crab pots in Calibogue Sound.

Recommended Readings & Additional Resources

Books for Ages 3-7

Do Whales Have Belly Buttons?: Questions and Answers About Whales and Dolphins
Author: Melvin Berger
Scholastic Reference, $5.95 (Paperback)

Developed specifically for second and third graders, this easy-to-follow book answers over 75 simple and complex questions about whales and dolphins.

Is a Dolphin a Fish?Is a Dolphin a Fish?
Author: Melvin Berger
Scholastic Reference, $5.95 (Paperback)

An acclaimed pair of authors come together to answer every question any enthusiasm might ask about stars, planets, creatures strange and fascinating, and more! Full color realistic illustrations enhance clear, informative text.

Whales Passing
Author: Eve Bunting
Scholastic Inc., $15.95 (Hardcover)

Eve Bunting’s lyrical text is long on the musings of a father and young son as they watch the whales swim by. What facts we learn come from a no nonsense page at book’s end. An interested child will turn the pages of this handsome book again and again.

Friendly Dolphins
Author: Allan Fowler
Children’s Press, $4.95 (Paperback)

With simple text this books appeals to young children. In easily understood language the reader learns about different types of dolphins; dolphins living in captivity and those in the wild.

Dolphin Talk: Whistles, Clicks, and Clapping JawsDolphin Talk: Whistles, Clicks, and Clapping Jaws
Author: Wendy Pfeffer
Harper Trophy, $4.99 (Paperback)

This was our favorite book about dolphin communication. The book compares people to dolphins in a way that helps children to understand all the ways dolphins have to communicate with each other. It also teaches about ways dolphins locate food through the use of echolocation. This book was great to read after we had returned from our trip to Florida. It helped pull together everything we saw and learned.

Books for Ages 6 - 8

Wild About DolphinsWild About Dolphins
Author: Nicola Davies
Candlewick Press, $10.99 (Hardcover)

This is the story of Nicola Davies, who at the age of 18 went to Newfoundland to conduct a dolphin and whale count. The main story is about her work that summer but interspersed throughout are interesting facts about different species of dolphins, their bodies and how they swim and play. We read this book after returning from our swim and found it useful as a tool to remind us about what we had learned but to also teach us new information about dolphin life.

Dolphins and Sharks: Magic Tree House Research Guide
Author: Mary Pope Osbourne
Random House Books for Young Readers, $4.99 (Paperback)

A great companion to Dolphins at Daybreak or to read as a stand-alone. The book is divided into different sections for easy reference.

Dolphins at DaybreakDolphins at Daybreak
Author: Mary Pope Osbourne
Random House Books for Young Readers, $3.99 (Paperback)

This is part of the Magic Tree House series. Jack and Annie are able to travel through time; having an adventure with dolphins is just one of many tales in this series.

Author: Sally M. Walker
Learner Publishing Group, $22.60 (Hardcover)

Whether preparing a report or reading for pleasure, this straightforward reference book provides older children extensive information on this popular aquatic mammal. While the color photographs are average, the text is detailed and covers many topics, such as physical characteristics, feeding, life cycle, communication, and conservation.

Books for Ages 9 - 12

The Music of DolphinsThe Music of Dolphins
Author: Karen Hesse
Scholastic Inc., $5.99 (Paperback)

An early teenage girl being raised by dolphins since age four is discovered one day off the coast of Florida. She is taken from her dolphin family to be studied in Boston as part of a governmental research project regarding feral children where she learns to speak in English, play music and work on a computer. As her days continue and she learns about becoming a human she longs for her dolphin family more and more. Karen Hesse originally intended this is book to be a story about speech therapy but as it evolved it turned into a story about friendship, compassion and finding your way.

A Ring of Endless Light
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux., $5.99 (Paperback)

During the summer her grandfather is dying of leukemia and death seems all around, 15-year-old Vicky finds comfort with the pod of dolphins with which she has been doing research.

The Island of Blue DolphinsThe Island of the Blue Dolphins
Author: Scott O’Dell
Random House, $6.50 (Paperback)

Left alone on a beautiful but isolated island off the coast of California, a young Indian girl spends eighteen years, not only merely surviving through her enormous courage and self-reliance, but also finding a measure of happiness in her solitary life.

Books for Adults

To Touch a Wild Dolphin: A Journey of Discovery with the Seas Most Intelligent Creature
Author: Smoker, Rachel
Anchor, $14.95 (Paperback)

In 1982, Rachel Smolker traveled to Monkey Mia, a remote spot in western Australia where she’d heard wild dolphins regularly interact with people. She had no intention of staying long; she simply wanted to see if the rumors were true. That initial trip changed Smolker’s life; it commenced a fifteen-year scientific obsession that has culminated in this fascinating scientific adventure story–the first-ever intimate account of dolphin life in the wild.


Baby Neptune Discovering WaterBaby Neptune Discovering Water
Ages: 9 months - 5 yrs.
Buena Vista Home Entertainment, $19.99 (DVD)

Baby Neptune focuses on all things water. Divided into categories, such as Water in the Ocean, Water at the Beach, Water in Rivers & Lakes, the tape shows various forms of fish and water-related animals and products, all set to a background of classical music. Puppets are interspersed with quick-paced images of bubbles, water toys, kids with umbrellas and other water objects, as well as majestic footage of live dolphins and whales in 37 short, well-presented segments.

Dolphins: The Wild SideDolphins: The Wild Side
Ages: 8 & Up
National Geographic, $19.95 (VHS)

Known for their boundless grace and playful energy, captive dolphins are always eager to please and perform. But at home in the open sea, there's another little-known side to these awe-inspiring mammals that's powerful, cunning, and ruthless. You'll be amazed to explore the secret side of these sociable yet aggressive creatures.


Heart of the World
Ages: 5 - 11 yrs.
Sarah Pirtle
A Gentle Wind, $14.95 (CD)

The well-crafted lyrics in these pretty folk-style melodies are about whale-watching, sharks, the lives of salmon, and how water cycles from clouds to earth and back again. "Dolphin Dog" is a whimsical track about a pup who wants to swim with the dolphins.


Dolphin Log for KidsDolphin Log For Kids
Ages: 8 - 12 yrs.
The Cousteau Society, Inc., $2.50 (Newsstand Price), $20.00 (Subscription Price)

Articles, puzzles, quizzes, projects, cartoons and photo essays related to the sea, and the flora and fauna that live in it for young members of the Cousteau Society.

Web Sites

IMAX presentation

Ages: All Ages

Scientists are discovering where the many kinds of dolphins live and travel; how dolphin families and societies form; how these marine mammals communicate with one another; and sadly, how humans adversely affect their health and mortality. Our film is a window into an incredibly complex realm where dolphins are just one citizen of a magnificent water kingdom. Refer to for current locations

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