Flipping for Flipper 

Who has always wanted to swim with the dolphins?"

In the "debriefing hut" at Discovery Cove, Sea World's new park where you can actually swim with dolphins, about 18 hands shoot up like they're catching a fly ball. The perky group in the hut is made up of people mostly in their Wonder Years, that age where you could ask, "Wanna skateboard on I-4?" and their hands still would rocket skyward. I can't account for the adults. They may be the kind who listen to Enya and can cure their own tumors by visualizing white light. My hand stays down.

I have never wanted to swim with dolphins. These bottle-nosed dolphins weigh 400 pounds and have two long rows of pointy teeth. They are also supposed to be brilliant. They're certainly smarter than I am; no dolphin has ever taped "The Real World Marathon." A trainer says they basically have X-ray vision and can see if you're pregnant or have cancer. In this pool recently the dolphins became absorbed with one woman's arm. It turned out she had a steel rod in it. They just knew.

I'm certain they'll sense that I have stated, in print, that if they were so damn smart they wouldn't end up in tuna nets.

My nervousness about swimming with a huge, psychic, possibly angry creature in his own element makes me perfect for the job. You can't send a naturalist on this kind of detail; they automatically think that if you can't plug it in, gas it up or ask it out, it's superior. I have no similar preconceptions. I've also heard that dolphins can be quite amorous, and between that and the name "bottle nose," I think I could be off to Vegas to become Mrs. Flipper by nightfall. It's an adventure.

Before the swim, we got some tips on dolphin basics, like how they use echo-location (sonar), how they can find something 6 inches long from 600 feet away (me, too), and how you should only swim with tame dolphins. (Run around with wild dolphins and you'll end up a bedraggled alcoholic before you graduate from high school, I guess.) Also, never put anything in the blow hole. I just thought I'd mention it. You could be close to a blow hole before you expect to be, and in case you were thinking of hiding your change or some sunglasses in there, forget it. Ixnay on the ow-hole-blay.

We troop out to the dolphin pool and wade in, waiting on the rocks for the dolphins to come swimming out. Before you can say, "I changed my mind," they're within reach. Our first interaction consists of learning some hand signals to get them to do tricks, like crossing your right arm across your body for the cue "swim away," which our dolphin does and is positively reinforced with fish. I think our dolphin is called Goofy, which is reason enough to turn on humanity.

Our first tactile experience with the dolphin is when we get to give it a smooch on its bottle nose. Vegas, here I come. Kissing a dolphin is actually no more awkward than kissing a relative you don't like. You get in and get out, you know? The dolphins might smell a little better; I don't know your family.

Next is the deep-water interaction, which we're doing in groups of two and which I volunteered for surprisingly quickly. The woman swimming with me and the trainer is a dolphin veterinarian, so I figure if the beast gets out of control she might know some Vulcan neck pinch to subdue it.

For openers we get the dolphin to do a trick, which is to spin around in the water when we spin around in the water, which is fun. But then we get to "hug" the dolphin. Dolphins are soft, extremely smooth and slippery. They feel like leather couches. The expensive kind. They're comfy and don't seem to mind being squeezed, a good quality in any companion.

Another thing we got to do was ride the dolphin, which means hanging onto its body and a fin while it carries you through the water. While you're spinning and playing it just seems like a big pet, but once it's pulling you through the water with more power and pick-up than your Honda Civic, you realize just how strong an animal you're dealing with.

All in all, it was a great experience, and I'd do it again in a second.

Because a ticket to Discovery Cove, opening July 1, is a whopping $179 plus tax, it's hard to say how many other people, especially families, will share this enthusiasm. This ticket includes the dolphin swim, though you can get a cheaper $89 ticket that gives access to everything in the park except the dolphins, but includes a seven-day pass to the Sea World park, snorkeling with tropical fish, plus a special underwater shark-and-barracuda viewing area (neither the sharks nor the fish were in the water on the pre-opening day we were there), and the aviary housing some of the most beautiful and bizarre birds you've ever seen, so close they can attack your toes (watch out for the blueberry tanager, smaller than a sparrow, but with a serious foot fetish). The food, it should be noted, is pretty good, particularly the salmon. This is the only fish they serve. You cannot order anything you may have been swimming next to earlier in the day.

The sole drawback of our afternoon was having to evacuate the pools due to a nearby thunderstorm, which could put a crimp in a park-goer's day. The dolphins did not have to evacuate the pools, probably because while they're very smart, they are too good-natured to be litigious.

Discovery Cove definitely does feel more calm and isolated than plenty of beaches do -- you can't hear one scream from any nearby thrill rides. And while you learn something, it doesn't have the burden of feeling "educational," which isn't a good thing for theme parks (witness the demise of the Disney Institute). Attractions should take a cue from Life cereal: Nobody likes anything that is supposed to be good for them, especially kids.

Discovery Cove was fun without being heavy-handed, and while it's expensive, unique things tend to be. Plenty of people fork over big money in Key West all the time to ride big bottle noses. It's fun.

And having had the dolphin experience, if I were again confronted with the question, "Who wants to swim with the dolphins?" this time my feelings wouldn't be up in the air. But my hand definitely would.



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