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Ever wonder what happens to beached, stranded or injured dolphins? The Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network works closely with Sea World of Texas to aid these animals. Gilly, an orphaned Atlantic bottlenose dolphin calf is just such a creature. Gilly came to Sea World weighing in at 54 pounds and now is a more ideal weight of 274 pounds.

Gilly is just one of several dolphins you can visit at the interactive tank. Feeding time starts at 10am and continues about every hour til 5 pm. For just three dollars, you get four smelt in a paper dish that other places might use to serve French fries. You can always tell when it is close to feeding time, by not only the line of people waiting to buy fish, but also by the dolphin activity. This is a great time to get photos. The dolphins come to the side of the tank and pop up out of the water to see how soon their snacks will arrive. The trainers and keepers call this "spy hopping." The longer the line, the more active the dolphins become as they swim and jump about the tank.

The keepers instruct you on how to hold the fish at water level and then toss it into the dolphin's mouth as he opens it wide enough to count his large and numerous teeth. While being fed, the dolphins are receptive to being petted on the nose and side of their bodies, you are cautioned to always be careful not to pet or block their blowhole.

The interactive tank at Sea World is open during park hours and in the summer months, that means from 10am to 10pm. Early evening, after feeding hours, the dolphins tend to quiet down. Sometimes only watching visitors from a distance and swimming under water as they journey around the tank. This is not the best time for photos or interaction. It is however, a great time to ask all the questions you might have about these sea creatures.

Are they aggressive?

While dolphins seem to be such friendly creatures they can and do display aggressive behavior. Much like a dog, the dolphins will dart, nip and attempt to intimidate with actions such as tail slapping, butting their heads, and blowing water out of the blowhole.

These otherwise gentle animals are known to show these behaviors to the keepers in an attempt to intimidate them into giving up possession of the sponges used to assist in the cleaning of the tank. One trainer said the female in the tank was the most aggressive. She blew water into her face and onto her glasses while making nipping gestures in an effort to obtain a yellow sponge. Because foreign objects pose such a choking hazard to these animals it is crucial that visitors keep things out of the tank.

What happens when hats or sunglasses accidentally fall into the tank?

Small children are the most likely to lose objects like hats and sunglasses. The dolphins love new items and will join in group play. They like to bounce the objects about and after some play will usually toss the item back out of the tank. However, the keeper warned, items which fall into the sea lion interactive tank are not usually as fortunate. While the keepers have nets to use in the retrieval of items, the sea lions are not nearly as kind in their play. They often mutilate the item beyond repair before it can be retrieved.

What kind of tricks do the dolphins do?

The dolphins in the interactive tank are not trained show animals. They are animals that have been rescued and are not expected to survive in the wild or animals that have been born into captivity. While Sea World does keep their retired show animals in tanks, there are five other secluded tanks for their dolphins. The only commands those on display are trained to do are to allow the trainers to take blood or get urine samples, both of which are used to insure the health of the dolphins.

Why and how do they move the dolphins?

Much like small children, the dolphins can display bad habits or emotional states such as loneliness. One male was secluded because of his aggressive behavior. After adapting to his being alone, a stronger male was put into the tank with him. When he displayed his aggressive side the stronger male put him in his place. After a week of interaction, the younger male learned to "play nice."

A second dolphin was moved from the interactive tanks when a new rescued animal displayed signs of being lonely. It perked up when its new companion arrived.

The dolphins are moved from tank to tank by using a specialized crane and water stretcher device. The crane is essential because of the weight of the animals. The stretcher keeps fresh water circulating over the dolphin so it stays wet during the transport.

This explains on one visit you might count seven dolphins in the tank and on another visit only five.

What kind of education to you need to be a keeper or trainer?

As you might expect, the keepers who monitor the dolphins and other animals, feed them and take care of their needs, need a minimum degree in marine biology or a related field.

However, to be a trainer, you need a minimum equivalent education in early childhood development and teaching. The same positive reinforcement techniques that are used in teaching a child are used in training the show animals.

In addition, trainers need a true commitment to the field. The trainer and animals build a one-on-one relationship. The same trainer works with the same show animal daily and year after year. The affectionate bond that develops is easy to see when you attend the shows or if you take a back stage tour to visit the trainers and the animals.

Remember while visiting a park or zoo, that the keepers and trainers are there not only to protect the animals but also to educate the public. It is their belief that we will protect the things we love and that we love the things we know. Educating the public is just as important and taking care of the animals in their trust. So, when you have a question, be sure to ask. They will be glad to give you an answer.