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Tourism / Ocean World

Ocean World Puerto Plata - Dominican Republic        
A day in the life of a dolphin trainer

The first thing that head animal trainer Tasha Bogden of Ocean World (located in Cofresí, near Puerto Plata on the north coast of the Dominican Republic) is quick to stress is that behind all the enjoyment and glamour of working with such loveable creatures as dolphins and sea lions, there is also a fair amount of hard work. The dolphin and sea lion trainers at Ocean World are responsible for the animals’ hygiene, health, nutrition and feeding as well as the playful fun and games experienced by visitors.

The trainers at Ocean World are a varied international mix, hailing from as far away as Australia to the neighboring Bahamas. There are also several Dominican trainers now, a trend that the park is eager to encourage. Many of them started working at Ocean World as unskilled employees who demonstrated an interest in working more closely with the animals, and received training on the job. An important quality for local trainers is that they should be able to speak English, which is the main language used in all activities with visitors.

The international trainers tend to have followed a different career track: many of them started off by volunteering in similar parks in their countries of origin, and embarked on studies related to the subject, usually marine biology and animal behavior/psychology.

7:30am – before the first visitors arrive
The working day starts early: the trainers check each animal for health and well-being. The next activity is food preparation. Every animal has a feeding plan, based on its age, weight and appetite, and the trainers have to prepare each individual’s personal feeding bucket for the day. This entails checking each fish for freshness and quality measuring out the balance between the different types of fish required for each animal, and weighing it all up. The fish is supplemented by vitamins, because the freezing process destroys some essential nutrients. The animals are not given any stimulants.

The animals themselves are weighed (in the case of the sea lions) and measured (dolphins) once a week.

Once the food buckets are ready, the trainers have to clean out the enclosures.

This is followed by husbandry – routine detailed checks of the animals’ physical health: the dolphins’ blowholes are examined and samples of blood and stomach content are taken. The dolphins and sea lions are trained to the extent that they can tell their trainers that something is wrong. In any case, explained Tasha, a good trainer knows his/her animals and is usually able to tell is there is something wrong purely from observation. The standards of animal welfare in terms of husbandry, nutrition and health care at Ocean World exceed US minimum standards. A veterinary specialist from the US makes quarterly visits for more thorough health checks and treatment where necessary.

9:30am and 3:30pm - shark feeding time
At present, this is carried out only by
the trainers, and the public are able to watch close-up. Once the sharks are more used to human contact, visitors will be able to join in and have the sharks swim up to them in shallow water and eat from their hands.

10:00am – 5:00pm – dolphins and sea lions
The trainers and their animals are ready for interaction with the public, and trainers take their allocated animals to meet the visitors for swims and encounters.

11:00am and 3:30pm - the sea lion training demonstration
This will eventually become a full
sea lion show, and is held in the small amphitheater. The sea lions dance, sing, applaud and make leaps and jumps at the trainer’s instructions.

10:20am and 1:20pm - the sea lion encounter
This is for smaller groups. Visitors can touch, pet and be
kissed by the sea lions in their pool.

10:00am, 12:00 noon, 2:00 and 4:00pm - the dolphin encounter
This is in shallow water, for larger groups and with no age restriction. Guests can touch, pet and feed the dolphins.

10:00, 11:00am, 12:00 noon, 1:00, 2:00, 4:00 and 5:00pm - dolphin swim sessions
These are for groups of up to ten people, to
swim with dolphins, touch them, kiss them and sometimes even ride holding the dorsal fins, with photographers recording the experience.

In between these sessions, which last for about 30 minutes and continue throughout the day, the trainers carry out a series of activities with the animals. They hold learning sessions consisting of training and building the relationship between the trainers and the animals, as well as exercise sessions with the animals. They also engage in play sessions which serve to reinforce the training and reward the animals for their cooperation. The training method used at Ocean World is positive reinforcement. Punishment is never used. Tasha explained that cruel methods are much less common nowadays and that the customer expects high standards of animal welfare.

5:30 pm – after the last visitors have left
The working day continues in this vein until the last encounter at 5:00pm, after which the trainers have to clean up all the equipment, pools and enclosures before leaving at 6:30pm. If an animal is ill one of the trainers will stay overnight to care for it. The night security staff have a checklist of signs to look out for, and are able to alert the trainers if any of the animals develops a problem during the night.

Ocean World is a member of IMATA (International Marine Animal Trainers Association, and like its sister park in Nassau, Dolphin Encounters, Ocean World is going to become a member of the prestigious Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA).

Article by Ilana Benady & photos by Pedro Guzmán

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