Goodbye, dolphins

My last volunteer day with dolphins was quiet and uneventful, except for one heart-stopping moment. I was sitting in the stadium Thursday with fellow volunteer (and much-appreciated frequent blog commenter) Marlene, just a couple of steps up from the bottom, when I realized that Allie, who almost never comes into the show pool unless lured by trainers with fish, was RIGHT THERE at the window, checking us out. I ripped my camera out of its zippered case, without a spare moment to switch my settings from landscape to portrait, and barely caught this image in the 10 or 15 seconds before she returned to the back pool she prefers.

As a child, I was a source of frustration to teachers and youth group leaders who found me way too reticent and shy. I resented their “Act like someone else!” edict, but thanks to Allie the dolphin, I kind of understand their frustration now. Allie’s reluctance to present herself voluntarily in the show pool always made me wonder why. If I could have talked to her, I would have said, “There’s nothing dangerous here, and you’re free to retreat from any stimulus that bothers you. Please just let us see you!” Trainers could have used gates to keep her out front, but they didn’t; the animal’s welfare, mental and physical, comes first here, which is part of what makes the zoo special. The dolphins won’t return after their yearlong pool renovation, and their welfare is driving that decision, too. They need more-varied social groups, and elderly Semo should not be moved from zoo to zoo any more than necessary.

Of course, Semo (above, in my last good look at him) is the dolphin I’ll miss most. He’s been there since my first volunteer day nearly nine years ago, and I devoted my second-ever blog post to Feeding Semo as my thousand-hour volunteer reward. To other volunteers and people who fully understand that I’m joking, I describe him as bionic and/or immortal; to some guests, I say this nearly 50-year-old dolphin is like a 95-year-old human who lives in a single-family home and still drives. In other words, he’s rare and amazing and makes you think he might go on forever, especially when he poses as charmingly as he’s doing below. Perhaps he will, but somewhere else.

I got my amazing glimpse of Allie shortly after noon, when she ordinarily would have been in the show pool for a training session. Because it was their last week on exhibit, sessions weren’t happening on their regular schedule — but Allie’s internal clock seemed to be telling her that she belonged in the show pool at that hour. After making her retreat, she swam around the back pool at top speed and did a couple of spontaneous jumps. I wonder if she knows she’ll soon be off to a new family and a new adventure. I hope she enjoys it. I bet she will.

Dolphin destination update: In early October, the dolphins arrived at their new homes: Allie returned to her previous Chicago residence, the Brookfield Zoo, and Semo now lives at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif., between San Francisco and Sacramento. He’s joining 14 other dolphins, and there’s hope that this big daddy will become a daddy there once more. Even at his advanced age, the odds seem excellent.

Sea change

I’ve had a week and a day to adjust to the news that when our dolphin tank closes for repair this fall and Semo and Allie go off-site, they won’t be coming back — a decision zoo director Lee Ehmke explains on the zoo’s website. In a way, it’s less shocking for volunteers, who knew the closure meant an extended departure. Volunteers also know that in the U.S., for eco-friendly reasons, dolphins generally are no longer taken from their ocean homes but bred in their domestic ones, which means replacement dolphins must be born in human care. And calf mortality, in human care or the wild, remains high. I’m trying to focus on all the good stuff at the zoo, old and new, including the long-awaited renovation of another ocean exhibit. Sharks will never have dolphins’ affinity for humans or that perpetual smile, but they do have a certain mystique. And our Tropical Reef, now fully refurbished and repopulated, treats the eye to this sunlit coral glow.

As any owner of a saltwater fish tank can guess, repopulating the aquarium was a gradual, painstaking process. In this case, a couple of months passed while the refurbished tank was filled with water to test for leaks, the new coral was cleaned, salt was added, “good” bacteria built up and, finally, fish were added in small groups, the sturdiest species first.

Many favorite creatures have returned, including the zebra (or leopard) shark above, and the clown triggerfish below (the topmost middle fish with the spotted belly).

The replacement corals, still artificial but much more vibrantly colored than the old ones, were a feast for the eyes even before the fish joined them. The new aquarium is the same size as the old one — about 60 by 80 feet, with about 80,000 gallons of water within. It would be irresponsible to harvest so much live coral from the ocean, and too hard to maintain it afterward.

Someone had the brilliant idea of adding this aqua-hued multilevel bench, occupied here by fellow volunteer Sharon. (She’s serving as “dive-spotter” for the aquarists who are in the tank cleaning the coral.) Not only does it let more people take a load off at once, but the space behind it creates a distinct passageway for people trying to pass through to the next exhibit.

So yes, I’m sad about the departing dolphins, but they’ll be here until fall, when we’ll all have a chance to say goodbye. In the meantime, we’ll wait to see what kind of sea creature replaces them. It won’t be the same, but it’s sure to be interesting.

Remembering Taijah

Atlantic bottlenose dolphins can occasionally live 50 years but have an average lifespan of 25. Just half of all calves reach their first birthday, in aquariums and oceans alike. At the Minnesota Zoo, where dolphin Semo is cruising toward the 50-year mark with astonishing verve, his daughter Taijah made it to 18 months. Despite the odds, her death from a sudden illness Monday night shocked everyone who knew her. I hesitate to write about it here; local media have covered it thoroughly, and I like to keep this blog a happy place. But leaving it out feels dishonest. And while part of me felt anxious about coming to the zoo yesterday — I worried I might cry a little if a guest asked me about the death — the day turned out to have a surprising amount of light in it.

Here’s Taijah with trainer Robyn nearly a year ago, in a shape-training session I wrote about at the time. (And if this scene doesn’t prove that dolphins and humans should know each other, nothing does.) I have a soft spot for Robyn, who gently guided and supervised my hands-on encounter with Semo a year before that. I’ve been trying not to imagine the magnitude of the trainers’ hurt this week. Yesterday, I wondered whether it was appropriate to reach out to a trainer if I happened to see one. I did not see one, though; the dolphin stadium remained temporarily closed, shielding Semo and Allie and their trainers from the world, while life continued to surge all around it. The day was warmish (for February) and brilliantly sunny. Discovery Bay teemed with rambunctious school groups. When I moved on to Tropics, the sun filtered through the skylights and brightened the foliage. Surprisingly, a service dog accompanied two women on the trail — only the second or third “civilian” canine I’ve ever seen at the zoo. She was a magnificent long-coated German shepherd who, I’m told, greatly intrigued the DeBrazza’s monkeys when they saw her through their exhibit window. For some reason, a young girl insisted on taking my picture by the gibbon exhibit. Farther along, the tapirs were licking each other’s long snouts before they decided to go for a swim together. And I was happy at the zoo, as I nearly always am, even as my heart continued to ache a little. I won’t forget Taijah, and I’m sorry we lost her so soon.

Splash zone: the next generation

I’ve written before about how much our zoo dolphins like to splash people. Chinook, now residing at the Brookfield Zoo, liked to scoop water up in his lower jaw and dump it over the pool’s edge while a custodian tried to squeegee the floor dry. Semo, in the picture below, inspired kids to put up a raincoat hood and an umbrella when he got extra-feisty one day in May. And now his daughter Taijah, age 1 year and 1 month, has discovered the joy of dousing a human head.

It reportedly happened before the 10 a.m. training session yesterday, and I saw it firsthand before the noon session. A trainer had been working with Semo around 11:30, and as a line of children lengthened at the viewing window, Taijah also swam out into the show pool and cruised alongside the glass, returning her spectators’ gaze. As she turned to retrace her path in the opposite direction, her tail fluke flipped a light waterfall over the side of the tank. Kids squealed; a fresh batch of them advanced while others retreated; Taijah opened her jaws to show a sparkle of blunt little teeth, then did it a few more times. I wanted to take a picture in the worst way but was fully occupied talking to kids and making sure little hands stayed out of the pool. And Taijah’s too quick for my camera, anyway. But her kid-splashing routine was as big a crowd-pleaser as the training-session pose shown below. (That’s either Taijah’s mom Allie or her grandma April in a picture from last year, and Allie struck the pose yesterday, too.)

After the show, fellow volunteer Sharon and I speculated about the lure of the kid-heads. Sharon wondered if all the pink clothing attracted the dolphin’s eye, which led me to wonder if all the pink just happened to correlate with all the excited high-pitched girl-voices, another possible attraction. Sharon asked a trainer who was taking kids’ questions as they filed out of the stadium. The trainer told us that even though a dolphin’s eye contains rods and cones,  it’s hard to be sure how vividly they see color. I noted this trainer’s technique as she tailored her answers to the age of the asker — always important when sharing biology facts with children. She told a preschooler the dolphins eat three kinds of fish; when a grade-schooler asked for specifics, she gave fish names (the small ones are capelin, the medium ones sardines, the large ones herring — three varieties that our new penguins also eat). Besides fish, the dolphins also enjoy snatching up ice cubes that trainers toss into their pool. And for whatever reason, a chance to spray water on a squealing kid clearly counts as a big reward.

Brookfield Zoo: our dolphin connection

For several years, I’ve had a yen to see the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago. Long ago, my husband’s oldest sister was a zookeeper there; more recently, dolphins have flowed back and forth between our two zoos, based on the best breeding prospects and who gets along with whom. Last week on vacation, after visiting family in Illinois, my husband and I made a detour to check out the whole zoo, and especially its marine mammals.

Of this seven-member pod, five are my old buddies. Potential breeder Chinook went back to Brookfield after an uneasy stint in Discovery Bay with our male Semo, who claimed all baby-daddy privileges anyway. Tapeko and her young daughters Noelani and Allison (that oh-so-human name always made us volunteers smile) spent a few months with us last year while the pool you see above was being revamped. Spree, now an eight-year-old, got along with that trio so swimmingly that she left with them when they returned to Chicago. The last I heard, Brookfield had plans to set her up with Chinook.

Brookfield’s underwater viewing area is a lot like ours. Watching the seven bottlenose friends do pre-show laps together, I picked out Spree easily based on her underbelly tooth-rake marks. (Those marks are a normal sign of dolphin-to-dolphin social conflict; Spree got along less well with our current Minnesota dolphins than she does with these guys.)

I’m not sure if that’s Spree with a trainer above, but that’s definitely Chinook on the right with trainer Mark. Each trainer paired up with the same dolphin for the duration of the 20-minute twice-daily show, which has been a staple for the zoo’s 50-year history.

The grizzly side of Brookfield’s Bear Wilderness (across from the polar-bear side)  is a lot like our grizzly exhibit, too, but with a two-tiered viewing area, a deeper pool and a smaller, Yellowstone Park-like species of brown bear. Rather than play-fight with a friend like our massive Alaskan/Russian species, the one grizzly we saw last week captivated the crowd by floating around on his back, with just his nose and paws above water. (Our prime ursine swimmer Kenai, on the other hand, always amuses the crowd by fastidiously keeping his ears dry.)

It would take me weeks to tell you everything I saw in a day at Brookfield, but this plaque sums it up well with a quote by naturalist John Muir. In a sprawling zoo the size of a small town, I still got that feeling of interconnectedness: plant to animal, animal to human, weaving a web of mutual sustenance, shelter and education. Our zoos share dolphins and a message, too.

Shape shifting

St. Patrick’s Day at the zoo: Nothing too unusual happened until I spent a scheduled hour at the dolphin window in Discovery Bay. All three dolphins have been gravitating to the two smaller pools behind the show pool — especially mama Allie, who has shunned the spotlight a bit since her own mother, April, died last month. A feeding/training session around noon is the norm, but this time the trainers added a twist: They came downstairs from the stadium and coaxed the dolphins to the viewing window. And instead of an enticing bucket of fish, the trainers wielded colorful cutout shapes: a rectangle for daddy Semo, a star for Allie, a circle for eight-month-old Taijah.

I’ve seen shape training used a lot with the zoo’s other marine-mammal rock stars, the otters and bears of Russia’s Grizzly Coast. But I’d never seen it used with dolphins. Fellow volunteer Henry and I each took a side of the window and held back the gathering crowd as the dolphins came forward. Here is trainer Robyn with Semo; a year and a half ago, when this blog was just a baby, I spent a delirious 20 minutes with the two of them up in the stadium while she showed me how to feed him fish and taught me dolphin-friendly hand signals.

And here comes Allie, who’s been leery of this section of the show pool. Somehow she must associate her star with good things. Or maybe she just likes Robyn.

Taijah has come a long way since emerging into the world as a 30-pounder on a stormy Saturday night in July. (I was descending in a wind-tossed plane toward a Twin Cities runway that night, so I remember that thunderstorm and the next day’s newborn news.) From the looks of this photo, she might outweigh Robyn, though she’s nowhere near her mama Allie’s likely weight of 350-400 pounds. Before she came to the window, Taijah was playing with a ball at the water’s surface, clasping it between her pectoral fins and nudging it with her bottlenose rostrum. Here she’s treating us to a bubble stream through her blowhole, apparently on command. The baby, her elderly dad and her mom are still not giving “shows,” per se — just training sessions — but I still count this mini-event as a special treat.

A death in the family

A week ago yesterday, the zoo’s three female dolphins — baby Taijah with her mom and grandma — swam a series of laps through their three connected pools, united as a pod, hard to photograph as ever but still a pleasure to watch. The grandma dolphin, April, is the slender adult in the middle; after seven months, Allie still carries some baby weight around her midriff.

One week later, the scene had changed —  a lot. Yesterday was the zoo’s annual Spanish Day, when a swarm of high-school students sets up informative Spanish-language booths devoted to various species. Live music with a Mexican theme floats through the air on Spanish Day, and the entire zoo hums with adolescent energy. But the hour I spent at the dolphin viewing window included quieter exchanges and somber moments with guests who’d heard the Monday news that Grandma April was no longer with us.

If you’re not the trainer or feeder, it’s almost impossible to notice when a creature who never stops swimming is sick. As one guest observed yesterday, a dolphin can’t just curl up in a corner like a dog. It’s also hard to gauge the depth of surviving relatives’ grief within the pod: They’re social mammals, so of course they realize and care that a family member is gone, but we can never know exactly what they feel — the dilemma we face with any animal, including the ones who live in our homes and sleep at the foot of our beds. What we do know for sure is that April, at 44, had lived a remarkably long life for a dolphin, and she got a chance to swim laps with her granddaughter.

Water, glass & goofballs

Yesterday was Day 1 of the Minnesota educators’ annual four-day weekend, a Day 1 that always feels like a holiday at the zoo. Combine that with our baby dolphin’s third day of access to the show pool, and you’ve got a holiday on steroids. Off-duty teachers and their inquisitive kids filled the stadium and swarmed in Discovery Bay, and I spouted baby-dolphin facts until my voice started to fail: She’s three months old and four feet long; her grandma is the one with the tiny eyes and the notched dorsal fin; daddy Semo is gated alone in a smaller pool because he might be aggressive toward the baby; the contest to name her is under way on the zoo’s website and Facebook page. I glimpsed her twice as she swam briefly from the holding pool to the big, scary show pool, but there was no time to photograph her or anything else yesterday. Fortunately, she’s not the zoo’s only frolicking aquatic mammal, and I’ve been holding onto these goofier, furrier images until the time is right. I think it’s right now.

Whenever I stroll through Russia’s Grizzly Coast, this is what I hope to see: Kenai all wet and slightly awkward, fur billowing, in pursuit of trout and a good time. What I never expect to see on the Minnesota Trail (or anywhere else), and did see just once in late August, is this:

It’s a special treat to behold our beavers in the water (or out of it), and I’ll never know what got into this one, but he scrabbled at the glass while delighted boys pressed up close and laughed. Just that one time.

Walking the Northern Trail two weeks ago, I kept reminding myself that THIS surely must be my last gorgeous day of Autumn 2010 at the zoo, and I did my best to immortalize the color with my camera. (Little did I know that last Thursday and even yesterday, despite the increasing chill, would be beautiful too.)

Here’s a lone stallion grazing peacefully in the Asian wild horse exhibit, plus a view of rosy foliage (baby maple? overgrown sumac?) on the Lakeside Terrace. I have to skip the zoo next week, and by November the last trace of color will surely be gone. But it’s been the longest, most lovely October in recent Minnesota memory, and I shouldn’t mourn its passing too much.

Just having a ball

The seven dolphins of Discovery Bay couldn’t have known everything (or anything) going on outside their stadium yesterday: that it was April Fool’s Day or that 75-degree temps and the first day of “farm babies” had the zoo bursting at the seams, with nearly 11,500 visitors counted by 3 p.m. Nor could they have known that little Spree, who made friends in recent months with three visiting dolphins in the back pool, would return to Chicago with them when their Brookfield Zoo pool renovations are done — a plan announced the previous day. Still, the dolphins must have known something was up. I spent an hour in the stadium before a training session started, and from eleven to noon, they never stopped playing ball.

The phrase “shared solitude” came to mind as I watched them. Each dolphin had a ball, and each dolphin seemed engrossed in tossing that ball to … well, nobody. As usual, Semo shared the show pool with his mother-daughter girlfriends April and Allie (a trio that does not play well with Spree; hence her planned departure). Semo clutched a faux football between his jaws; April clasped a small beach ball beneath a pectoral fin. Once or twice a minute, at least one ball flew through the air, hit the water and floated for a few desultory moments before someone’s jaws reclaimed it. In the rear pool where the Brookfield Zoo mom and her two young daughters had befriended Spree, the dolphins were harder to see — but there, too, beach balls repeatedly sailed through the air, sometimes passing each other in flight. No music was playing, and no trainers were encouraging the sport. But the dolphins devoted themselves to their shared activity with an attention span unknown to most small children (and many adults).

Because Allie is pregnant and Semo and April are senior citizens, we don’t have full-scale dolphin shows, and training sessions don’t always follow a consistent schedule. But when guests asked when the next one was coming, I told them the spontaneous ball game was as good as a show. Moving on to my next scheduled post as the “official” training session began, I felt like I’d already seen one.

The splash zone

When the dolphin stadium is open to guests, there’s always a volunteer inside to make sure human hands and other objects stay out of the 500,000-gallon show pool. Between training sessions, dolphin fans under a certain age will ask plaintively, “Can’t you make them jump?” Unless you’re a trainer with a bucket of fish, the answer is no. But some days an antic spirit seizes hold of the dolphins, for a minute or an hour, and when I entered the stadium Thursday morning, the air had that electric feeling. Two trainers with clipboards (but no fish buckets) stood above and behind the pool, observing and note-taking, while Semo (the sole and senior male), Allie (pregnant with Semo’s dolphin-child) and Allie’s mom April took increasingly frenetic laps around the pool. Although there was no training session in progress, the staffers were playing a CD of movie music from “Shrek” and “Madagascar,” and it became clear that all three dolphins were chasing each other. For extra fun, at least one was swimming on its back. A dolphin’s top speed is around 20 mph, and I’d swear somebody (maybe Allie?) hit that. Fast laps always raise a long, cascading water-wave that crashes over the side of the pool, drenching anyone standing or sitting within 10 feet or so. Guests either love this or hate it, and a toddler by the window pitched a fit, running back to her dad’s arms for about 90 seconds before she toddled off again, chuckling and cooing. And yes, a dolphin jumped, unasked by any human, arcing high in the air and eliciting a gasp from the little crowd before returning nose-first to the water.

This quartet of kids watching Semo through the glass missed it all: By the time they came in, the electricity had ebbed, the dolphins had worked the manic burst out of their systems, and the water’s surface was again smooth and blue. There’s no telling when the next eruption might occur.

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