Food Feature: Cetacean fixation

Suck face with Flipper at Orlando's new Discovery Cove theme park

Once you've had cetacean, you never go back. All my friends think it's just a phase — I'll grow out of it, they say. But I know better. Somewhere out there is a 3-year-old Tursiops truncatus who loves me for who I am. I used to only find women attractive, but Diego changed all that. It doesn't matter that he's male, 3 years old, weighs 300 pounds and breathes through a hole in the top of his head.
Not to say we don't have a lot of work to do in this relationship. For one thing, it's doubtful Diego the dolphin remembers me from the hundreds of people he flirts with on a daily basis. Diego and several score of his kind live in Discovery Cove, the new theme park in Orlando, Fla. It's a simple idea: For $199, you're one of a select few to go one-on-one with a bottlenose dolphin.
The price is steep, but the experience is truly singular. If you can futz around Discovery Cove's dolphin lagoon with one of these jumpy comedians and keep from grinning like an idiot, you're made of sterner stuff than I. Diego is every youngster's dream: a cool super-pet that responds to voice commands and does tricks that make Lassie look like a Chia pet.
But let me tell you how we met, Diego and I. Our story begins at Discovery Cove, located across the street from its parent park, Sea World. Unlike any major theme park to date, you have to make a reservation for Discovery Cove, as only a limited number of people can get in (1,000 per day max).
I arrive bright and early at the entrance hall on the day of my reservation. The other guests and myself are processed and assigned a time for our dolphin swim. After a brief rap session, we're let into Discovery Cove proper. We're sent off to get our gear for the day, which consists of mask, snorkel (which you can keep) and wetsuit. With all the park guests stuffed into these identical neon-toned getups, the place has the look of an old sci-fi movie where everyone dresses in weird clothes. I believe the title of this one would be Planet of the Human Sausages.
We're encouraged to explore the tropical reef, the aviary, the manta pool and the freshwater river while waiting for Dolphin Time. The reef and manta pool are neat, as they're essentially man-made snorkeling environments stocked with all kinds of brightly-colored fish and swooping manta rays. As much as I enjoy the scene, I feel sorry for the various critters, as I observe mantas and fish alike desperately fleeing the crushing feet of tourists shambling and floundering on the shallow pseudo-reef.
Nice enough, but all this is just filler before the money shot: the dolphin swim. I report to our designated gathering hut (the "Seahorse Cabana") for a short talk on dolphin anatomy and behavior. David, Discovery Cove employee and chieftain of Seahorse Cabana, is extremely enthusiastic and outgoing. Demonstrating on a dolphin plush toy, David points at each part: "This is the rostrum!" (points at nose), "This is the blowhole!" (points at forehead), "This is the genital slit!" (points at belly). I'm not sure why we needed to know about the genital slit, but I watched out for it just in case.
After our cabana confab, our group of 20 splits into four smaller groups. Our sub-group of six is issued two Discovery Cove dolphin trainers, Mike and Kayla, who are just as stoked as David. They frogmarch us down the beach and into the warm waters of the dolphin lagoon, where we are to meet Diego, our new best pal.
We all hunker down in the waist-deep water. Trainer Mike signals Diego, and here comes the dolphin, swimming by as we all stroke his fins and belly. His flesh feels hard and rubbery like an inner-tube. With coordinated signals (and fish rewards) from Mike and Kayla, Diego flips over, swims in circles, waves his flippers and generally acts so cute you can barely stand it. When our eyes meet (two of mine, one of his), I know this guy is The One. He's a charmer, a smooth operator.
Still, it's expected that Diego can do this smart-dog stuff. But how to explain his fake sneeze, complete with spray? Or get this: If you tap him on the forehead, he'll make big blatty farting noises out of his blowhole. And at the end, each person gets to hang on as Diego torpedoes through the water and pulls him along like a mini-Shamu. Yes! Take me away from all this, moist brother!
Before Diego says goodbye with a quick jump and a tail-wave, we're each allowed a great photo op: Mike and Kayla tell us to hold Diego by the chin and give him a kiss. When my turn comes, I hesitate briefly — coyly — then plant a good one right on his rostrum. I swear, the Earth moved.
We all wander back to shore, amazed and giddy. Corny as it sounds, if you get off on this kind of thing in the slightest, the dolphin swim alone is worth the high price of admission to Discovery Cove. It's much different than swimming with dolphins in the wild; it's anything but spontaneous. But unless you take after the Cousteaus, you'll get more dolphin bang for the buck here than anywhere else. And who knows ... you might even meet that special someone.

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