What you always wanted to know about...dolphins

Feb 24, 2012

Interview with dolphin carer, Héctor Canatelli
What you always wanted to know about...dolphins

Dolphins like very much to be stoked by their trainers. In fact, trainers use this secondary incentive (caresses) more than the primary one (fish) when coaching behaviour, exercises …

Dolphin training has two stages:- Desensitization that consists of training the animal to allow itself to be touched and fed by the hand of the trainer…and the Target stage. The target is introduced as the extension of the trainer’s hand in coaching behaviour and doing exercises. As soon as they are born, they are trained in medically sound behaviour so that they may have greater control over their own health.

Héctor Canatelli, one of the dolphin carers of the Oceanogràfic aquarium, describes his job:

- What do you have to do to become a dolphin trainer?

- Contrary to what many believe, you don’t need a degree in Biology or Veterinary studies to become a dolphin trainer. Obviously if you have previous experience, it’s better, but it’s not essential.
Even if someone lacks practice, the requirements are only that you are of legal age, are a secondary school graduate, know sufficient English (basic level), have a diving certificate and are in good physical shape.
It is often said that more time is spent training a future dolphin trainer than one of these animals.

- What techniques are used to communicate with the animals?

- Communication with dolphins is through signals and whistling. Dolphins have very good hearing and listen to the whistle both in and out of the water. Both trainers and dolphins are guided by the whistle in order to communicate and to know, for instance, where an exercise finishes.

Although they hear the voice of the trainer and each animal has its own name, they don’t recognise it, something that is quite strange when in the case of walruses they do recognise their names as well as, of course, the gesture that tells them when to approach.

- Is it true that they are very intelligent?

- That is a tricky question as it depends a little on the definition of intelligence that is employed. In the sense that intelligence means to relate a series of instruments and ideas in order to achieve a goal, it may be said that dolphins are, indeed, intelligent.

For example, there was a case when a dolphin “used” one of the toys that it had in the swimming pool in order to achieve its aim, which was to move an obstacle that the trainers had positioned so that it couldn’t go into the other swimming pool… in the end, it got there. However, to fully answer that question would entail a lot of research as there are various theories and opinions on the intelligence of these animals.

- How do you know which is which? How do you differentiate between them?

- Carers and trainers can differentiate each animal as day-to-day contact soon helps them to recognise each one on sight. Sometimes marks on the skin can serve as a guide, but each animal is different anyway: they have their own expressions, face, also the size varies between one and another…

After one or two weeks working with them, trainers begin to differentiate between them.

- Are their characters different? What are the dolphins of the Oceanogràfic like?

- Absolutely, each one has its own personality and observing them day-to-day helps to get to know them. In training, during feeding, in the vet’s check-ups… each animal has its own way of expressing what it likes, what it doesn’t like and one can “sense” which companion a dolphin likes best, which pool it is most at ease in, and what food it likes best, for example.

Between them they establish their differences and even their hierarchy. Within the group of dolphins at the Oceanogràfic, the dominant male is an animal with a strong character who knows how to impose authority, without being aggressive. This is lucky as sometimes, in order to impose their authority on others and take control of the school, the dominant male needs to be aggressive. In our case, we have a peaceful animal who knows how to “keep order”.