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Swimming with the dolphins

by Robyn Perham

Winter in Ballarat is all about hibernation. It had been freezing for weeks and the Murray red gum filled fires were blasting the place with hot air, just to make life livable. The skies were grey, but the rain every few days was most welcome. Victorians love to talk about the weather. And why not? There is a lot to talk about! Life in winter is all about a series of "fronts" that come up from the Arctic. Yet another front was coming through that afternoon so we were again preparing for hail and high winds.

Michael came in from the office looking worried. "The ship that was supposed to be in on Thursday will be delayed for about a week, maybe more." He said. "So we've got a bit of time off. How do you feel about four warm days on the Gold Coast?!"

Our bags are always packed as we buzz-off for a few days quite often, but usually closer to home, getting out and about in Victoria. This time it was lovely to repack, swapping the winter draws for some lighter, tropical clothing.

By that night we were on the plane, heading for Sea World. Happily, the main brunt of the front had passed by the time we were airborne, so our fears of a rough take-off were unfounded. The wheelchair does not present a problem, as Virgin has the whole loading and unloading of passengers down pat, so there were no unexpected dramas there.

With a tail wind, we arrived half an hour early and stepped out in Queensland to a glorious full moon and a sky full of stars. We hadn't seen them in grey old Melbourne for what seemed like months!

Unloading at Coolangatta is always a bit of a trial, as, like many of the smaller airports, they still do not have a sky bridge and so they have to rely on the old, manually operated hoist. Never very pleasant in bad weather. The whole set-up would be totally impractical for anyone who is not Twiggy and is confined to their chair, but we all managed and made our entrance to the airport in their golf buggy.

The transfer bus soon had us at the door of the Sea World Nara Resort, but not before we'd had a good look over the Gold Coast from Coolangatta up to Southport.

We knew, upon arrival, why their accommodations were having a price blitz - they were in the midst of a make over. The resort was built in the 70's, and their disability access - such as it is - seems to have been a series of retrofits, so any improvements made are going to be most welcome. Ann from Engineering at the resort tells me that they'll be fitting tactiles, but other than that most of my access ideas seemed to be news to them!

Our room was gloriously spacious, and after a late dinner with a quick bit of room service, our two soft, double beds welcomed us. They were so comfortable; we were still there at 11.30 the next morning!

We'd asked for an accessible room away from the pool and screaming kids, and we'd been given one. It was all blessedly quiet and tranquil in our wing, with no hint of the racket that usually comes with building and renovation works.

The "disabled room" as they called it was one of four at the resort, and was another retrofitted job. The door into the room was too small. The toilet pedestal was an ordinary toilet, but they'd installed a hand held shower rose in the accessible shower bay, lever taps that needed tightening (as they tended to work their way back to "off" unless jacked up with a towel) and substantial hand rails were installed where they should have been. The wet bathroom floors needed wet mats. The phone was also up on the desk (annoying if needed once one is in bed), and the lamp shade looked as if it had come off second best in an argument.

Over at Sea World life was in full swing, although hardly "crowded". Charios for "breakfast" would hardly qualify as "healthy", but these long, Mexican donuts are hot and delicious and are a wonderfully naughty accompaniment to coffee. If you can get a bit of them before the seagulls, that is. Each food purchase is accompanied by a friendly warning to "watch the birds" and they're not kidding. These scavengers see anything you've got as "theirs", and will swoop in with a silent, sneak attack and snatch the food right off your plate or out of your hand. It was like a scene from The Birds. Yet tourists still persisted in feeding these pests and many thoughtlessly left their trays on the tables for the gulls and pigeons to swoop upon and noisily fight over.

First stop for us was the dugong exhibit. Although these huge mammals are common up in North Queensland where I come from, they aren't very visible. Seeing two of them happily swimming around, munching lettuce, was such a pleasure.

Second stop was the polar bears. We were excited to see these large animals in the flesh. But our excitement turned to concern as the one bear on display was walking ten steps to the door and then backing up. He was very agitated and did this for several hours. His body language made him look quite insane. I felt so concerned for him, I asked about it. Apparently his brother was being kept out the back, and as they weren't used to being separated, he was stressed. It was distressing to witness, as we went back several times during that afternoon and he was still doing the same thing. It was drawing a lot of comment from others as well.

The ski show was a tribute to the 50's and all the fun of rock and roll. We baby-boomers happily bopped along. With so many tourists and so many big prams, we were having no luck in accessing the designated disability seating area. To Sea World's credit, a staff member soon appeared and asked if we'd like people moved so we could get in. We could see from our vantage point, so I declined, but it was nice to know they cared and were willing to do something about it, as the mindless "offenders" had no intention of moving voluntarily!.

It takes all sorts, they say, and people are people the world over. It was incredible to know how many folk do not feel the need to make way for wheelchairs. After an hour or so we were wishing we had fitted Boadicea wheels to the chair as skinned shins seemed like a fair enough incentive to encourage movement!

We went to the eatery for coffee after the show and smiled wryly at the number of tourists who felt it was quite OK to use the snack bar's seating and tables to pull out their own picnic from their bags, whilst people with trays of food waited impatiently for a table. Some even set themselves up on the ramped walkways up to the eateries with a big circle of chairs, and had their home prepared picnic, leaving their rubbish behind as they left!

The penguins and seals were not on display. Their exhibits were being revamped, so they were being held, along with the turtles, in a series of ponds over the back. We could see them bopping about from the mono-rail and from the sky cars though. One kissing and saluting seal was brought out to perform in the pirate show and this seemed to be a favorite with the kids.

While up in the air, from all vantage points, our eyes eagerly searched the pools below to try and spot the two new dolphin babies. One was about half grown and one was only weeks old - so small and cute! They were easy to see and we went and had a great old natter to them once back down on terra-firma.

Just before three o'clock we, along with about 500 others, made our way to the dolphin show. We were ushered to the disability seating, right down the front.

Even before the show began, the dolphins cruised by, stopping to say hello to the tourists and seeming to pose, smiling, for photographs.

The show was thrilling and remarkable as these wonderful animals performed their feats of amazing prowess. They seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves and not, as we'd wondered, just doing what they had to do to get a fish to eat.

They seemed to enjoy the interaction with the humans as much as we were enjoying them. Each dolphin was obviously an individual. One would toss his head with a cheeky gleam in his eye as he sailed past, seemingly in slow motion, performing his leaps. Another would smile broadly and put that extra bit of oomph into it.

The finale brought me undone as all dolphins soared skyward over the speedboat and slid to a gliding stop in front of the thrilled crowd. I certainly wasn't the only one emotionally overcome at the spectacle of it all.

Michael had a surprise for me for the next day. He'd booked me in for a swim with the dolphins. I was so excited! We'd gone all the way to Bunbury in Western Australia with the promise of swimming with dolphins, but had been sadly disappointed with our experiences. So this was our chance.

As common sense becomes less common, its all about public liability insurance these days as Australia is quickly becoming as litigious as our overseas counterparts. It made sense that swimming with wild dolphins in the open sea would present more of an insurance risk than swimming with trained, habituated dolphins in a closed environment, so we eagerly watched as others enjoyed their encounters with the dolphins and looked forward to our own. Each person seemed to get around about 5 minutes of their 30 minute "dolphin experience" of actual hands-on interaction, and each seemed to come away satisfied and happy.

We were also enjoying the sunshine and the 21 degree heat. We pale Melbournians were both getting a little burned, actually. As the afternoon wore on, however, the cooler breezes began and we were pleased to disappear underground and spend a peaceful hour in the underwater aquarium. Huge sharks, schools of fish and many different kinds of stingrays soared past, putting on an underwater ballet filled with their own small dramas, mostly concerning who was chasing who.

Our room was welcoming, with the air conditioning set to a wonderfully warm 25 and we looked forward to a relaxed evening. After a hot shower and an exotic drink at the bar, we went into the restaurant and enjoyed chatting with the very friendly staff, while enjoying an all-you-can-eat, 5 course buffet. The fresh seafood and fresh fruits attracted me, while Michael cheerfully sampled just about everything else!

The next morning we were up bright and early. Creamy coffee in the puffy lounge of the downstairs lounge was welcome as we gazed out over the green lawns and watched the white ibis wade through the fish ponds, checking out every likely-looking spot for a feed.

The staff was setting up morning tea out in the gardens for a conference. We laughed as we watched one cheeky butcher bird come to check out the tightly secured tablecloths over the glad wrap covered donuts, scones and sandwiches before a staff member on "bird shooing" duty could return.

The conference participants poured onto the lawns and to our delighted surprise, their stood their guest speaker; cricketer Denis Lilly, looking debonair in his dark suit with his grey hair!

We were first through the gate to ride the mono-rail up to the other end of the park, where we made ourselves known to the dolphin-swim staff and we were issued with wet suits. To our dismay, we were only charged $90 instead of the usual $135, as my wheelchair designated me as a "special needs" swimmer. Michael, who was considered to be my "carer", was also issued with a wet suit, as he would have to be present to offer me any assistance I might need.

Isn't it often the way that the most interesting things happen when you're least expecting them? We had half an hour to kill before we were required at the designated spot for briefing, so we made our way down to the dolphin pools to wait. We were soon noticed by the resident dolphin and he made us his audience as he sailed by, having a good look at us on his way past. He seemed to get excited when we waved and clapped his every movement, and came back time and again, jumping and splashing, ostensibly in an effort just to impress us.

We wondered if we were just anthropomorphizing the animal with our ideas about his reasons for doing what he was doing, but we soon changed our minds.

As he was approaching, eye squinted against the sun, I pushed myself off in the wheelchair and slid along the deck past him. He immediately stopped and turned, coming back, popping his head out of the water for a better look at me. Apparently I was very interesting indeed; being able to slip by in my chair, and his alert eyes and body language told the story.

Michael had an idea. He got out his phone and moved to hang over the rail as if taking a photo. Sure enough, the familiar tail out of the water pose, head held high and a big smile was enacted! We were delighted that he was interacting with us and seemed to be enjoying himself with us as much as we were with him. He certainly knew the drill, and there was no reward fish involved.

Two of the trainers approached us and asked which area would be best for me to enter the water. We pointed out a sandy beach and a set of fairly negotiable stone steps into the pool opposite. This turned out to be just right as this pool contained their oldest dolphin, Simon, and another male, RB (Rat Bag) who is 17.

I was fitted out with an unglamorous life jacket, and Michael helped me get down onto the beach and into the freezing water. The dolphins were excited by the presence of the trainers, each with their little blue esky denoting the promise of fish for morning tea, and they gave us all their full attention.

Simon, at 92 in dolphin years, was wrinkled, battle scarred and calm. Apparently he was a grandfather and was still the boss of the dolphins, despite his age. He'd seen it all before and was very laid back about everything. He seemed to know that my fish-tossing skills would not be up to par, so he watched intently out of his good eye and moved to counteract my uneven fish tossing almost before his dinner had left my hand, swallowing his fish whole in one lightening gulp.

Dolphins, being highly tactile, like nothing better than a cuddle and a pat. As I was the only booking for this "special needs" interaction, I was the sole recipient of all of their attention. Two keepers, two dolphins, no waiting! Their skin is like silk and is apparently thinner than ours, so I was mindful to be very gentle. The experience was beyond wonderful and I held the tears back as I caressed, stroked and kissed my way through a good half hour of dolphin information and play.

They splashed me and laughed - I laughed and splashed back. It didn't matter that the water was so frigid that by now my legs had gone numb. I couldn't move them any more, but I locked my knees back, kept my legs wide to support myself in the waist deep water and just gave myself up to the experience.

The keepers and I encouraged Michael to come and join in everything as well. He got to toss the ball for Simon, but Simon only wanted to give it back to me. Perhaps that was because I was the one tossing the fish?

Simon was asked to "sing". No sound is emitted from a dolphin's neck; they orchestrate their voice from their blowhole. Simon croaked out his rendition, and then RB showed us how it should have been done, singing sweetly with his giggles, clicks and squeaks.

Simon lay still and almost went to sleep as he was cuddled and rubbed down, willingly presenting his somewhat tattered flippers and tail for inspection and strokes. RB lay on his back and tentatively presented his left flipper. I touched him under his armpit and he flinched, as if he was ticklish! The trainer gave him a hand signal and RB flopped his tongue out to the side. She said he had taught them that he could do that. I was invited to touch his tongue but I declined; I felt it was a bit demeaning.

RB had to be taken for some special attention by one of the trainers then, as a girl dolphin in the pen next door meant he was much more interested in showing off to attract her attention than he was in interaction with mere humans.

Our time all-too-soon came to an end, but we were relieved to get out of the freezing water. I was also glad to escape to a quiet spot and I cried my eyes out on Michael's shoulder. It was just pent up excitement and knowing that I'd finally realized one of life's dreams. The experience is utterly moving, and I'd had a taste of it once before. Julia and I had been whale-watching in Hervey Bay and we'd been eyeball to eyeball with a huge humpbacked cow and its newborn calf. The boats engines had been turned off as we kept a respectful distance from the animals, but they came to us. Everyone on the boat had been tearful at the enormity of the interaction and the sure knowledge that this mother was teaching her calf all about humans, just as we were learning all about humpbacked whales.

The interaction had been mutual and so extraordinary that it was simply wonderful. We'd braved seasickness in 25 knot swells out in the open sea, but all of that was forgotten once we'd made contact with the whales. We'd watched as the cow kept her calf out of the way, even popping him up onto her back, as she was mated by the big bull.

After the male had gone, she'd spent time teaching the calf to flap its tail in just the right way in preparation for their imminent migration, and then brought him over to see us. The more we cheered and waved, the more excited the calf became, and he made several passes, jumping out of the water with a wave of his pectoral fin and smiling with a cheeky gleam in his eye. We were beyond thrilled.

But the excitement was tangible when the cow brought the calf right over and swam around and around the boat, both surfacing to look right up into our eyes. Towards the end of our encounter she even dove under the boat and I was lucky enough to be right at the railing on the "wrong side" of the boat when she surfaced about two meters away from me, lined up parallel to the boat. I felt I could have touched her. Our contact was absolutely spine-tingling.

Sea World was wonderful in its diversity and the attention to cleanliness and function, and we enjoyed it all. Most things were "almost" disability accessible - more disability friendly than really "accessible". I felt sorry for the kids in their wheelchairs who appeared to be there as part of their holiday package. It would have been nice if they could have accessed the rides. I felt sorry for their carers too as some of the ramps were insufferably steep.

The giant Ferris wheel, dangling us 60m above the ground in a glass egg, while swinging gently in the breeze, presented this vertigo devotee with a few anxious moments, but it didn't worry Michael as, being a sea captain, he was used to "frigging in the rigging" high above the deck, so to speak.

Michael also enjoyed getting onboard the 2/3rd sized replica of the Endeavour. He gravely announced that their ropes could do with some work and I thought, for a while, that he was going to volunteer to do it for them right then and there! After 16 years at sea, this captain gets a bit exasperated at proletarians that do not have marine-environment items all ship-shape and Bristol fashion.

There was time for one last visit to the dolphin show on our way home. To our surprise the show was being performed by a different set of trainers and the dolphins were performing some different tricks.

That evening, time in the hot spa under the rising moon, accompanied by the antics of the roosting ibis in the palm trees, was most relaxing and pleasurable. We'd laughed at the resourcefulness of these high-stepping birds as they'd thoroughly checked out the contents of the prams in the "pram zone" near the dolphin show. They were happily helping themselves to carefully stashed sandwiches and the like as the prams owners had been occupied, watching the dolphins perform.

That night we took ourselves off to an authentic Japanese restaurant downstairs. Michael drank a particularly good brand of hot sake, and I had their Japanese lemon tea. The food, delivered with great ceremony in diminutive morsels, was more delicious than I can remember in recent dining out experiences. It was ludicrously over priced, but then again, we were still full from the buffet the night before and we were paying for the experience rather than the quantity of food.

The Aussie taxi driver (a species that seems to have been lost in Melbourne) was a mine of information on the way back to the airport the next afternoon. The Gold Coast is certainly changing. It is growing expedientially and the Gold Coast of my teens, largely spent swimming in Tallebudgera creek, was hardly recognizable.

"I want to go back!" I wanted to scream. Happily, we'd once again missed the front - it was on its way up to the Gold Coast - and as we touched down in Melbourne there were few bumps at landing. It was cold as I sat waiting at the disability drop-off zone while Michael retrieved the Mercedes from the long-term parking and others used the designated disability zone as convenient short term parking. Signs warning that "unattended vehicles will be towed" were apparently worthless.

One of the things I miss about North Queensland is the ready availability of fresh, tropical fruits, and happily the Asian markets (on our route home) is one of the places to find it in Melbourne. As I sat watching the passing spectacle of this multicultural city and shivered with the encroaching night chill, I felt the familiar excitement of being a part of all this and quite at home. In that instant I realised that … I've become a Victorian.

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Page last updated 13 January 2010.