Chapter 7 – For the Love of Dolphins

My brother, Scott, was greatly influenced by James Herriot’s stories about his life as a veterinarian in the bucolic English countryside. Scott saw in Herriott the empathy he felt toward animals and appreciated his self-deprecating humor – which was not unlike Scott’s own. Yet, what really started Scott on his path to vet school was a job at the Miami Seaquarium.

He had spent his childhood, as we all had, in love with Flipper. Everyone wanted a dolphin friend who would lead us on exciting adventures solving puzzling mysteries and helping the police capture bad pirates or mean boaters who dropped empty beer cans into the ocean and didn’t even wear their life preservers.

Scott, more motivated than most (I just drew dolphins in crayon on my bedroom wall), took up scuba diving as soon as he was old enough to become certified. Then he left New York and moved to Florida to start college at the University of Miami. In 1976, Scott saw a job announcement at the Miami Seaquarium. It was a pivotal moment that changed the direction of his life.

Scott applied to be a tank diver – the guy who cleans the huge aquarium tanks while peering nervously over his shoulder at the circling nurse sharks. He also had to feed the tank creatures and many close encounters with manatees, sea turtles and barracudas followed. It was fun, but the best part was that he was finally working in a place where he could be closer to dolphins. An added bonus was that the actual set where Sandy and Bud played with Flipper on the television series was located right on Seaquarium grounds. It was where the Seaquarium trainers worked with the dolphins.

 Scott often went over to the training area and watched the trainers work with the dolphins, seals and killer whales. It was a humbling experience to see these obviously very intelligent animals work with their trainers to create a performance that people from all over the world would come to see.

After a while, he began watching one trainer in particular (almost as much as he watched the dolphins). It wasn’t just that she was a pretty brunette who had an amazing rapport with the dolphins. He’d also heard that she’d trained a blind dolphin. He’s heard that everyone had given up on this dolphin because he couldn’t see the hand signals that the trainers used. Kathy (the pretty trainer) had used a whistle and gentle touches on his body to train him anyway. And despite his blindness, he could soon do almost anything the sighted dolphins could do, including jumps and twirls. Everyone was impressed with her and no wonder – she was smart, pretty and had a way with dolphins.

Scott started to think that he needed to get out of the fish tanks and closer to the dolphins. After several months of tank-diving, a job opened up for a show announcer in the marine mammal arena. With his experience as a disc jockey at the campus radio station in college, Scott enthusiastically applied for the job. He had to do a “test show” before he could get the job. He was nervous and made up some silly things to help himself relax that weren’t in the script. The Seaquarium staff laughed at his antics. He got the job on the spot.

For the next year, Scott wore goofy Hawaiian shirts and narrated the antics of the dolphins, sea lions and killer whales as well as occasionally performing with them as part of some of the shows. It wasn’t quite what he’d pictured when he’d thought about befriending dolphins, but he was still learning about them and the humans who worked with them. It was an exciting and entertaining time.

Then, one day, something bizarre happened. Scott was announcing a show involving a male killer whale named Hugo. In the middle of the show, Hugo knocked the trainer into the water and grabbed him in his giant mouth. Then as everyone watched, he pulled the trainer under water.

The audience thought it was part of the show and applauded wildly. Scott knew something was very wrong. He ran out of the sound booth and down to the edge of the water. The other trainer was standing at the edge of the tank in shock. They watched Hugo surface with the trainer in his mouth. He looked terrified and in pain. Scott and the other trainer grabbed him and tried to keep Hugo from pulling him under again.

The truth was if Hugo wanted to hold onto the trainer, they could not have stopped him, but the whale allowed them to pull him out of his mouth. The trainer escaped with only a few bruises and scrapes, but everyone was deeply shaken – especially Scott and the others who had witnessed the event.

Scott had always thought of the marine mammals as benevolent and friendly. They seemed happy to play and do tricks. The dolphins and seals were rarely purposely aggressive, but this was a killer whale and he had just done something that was more like a predator playing with prey than a trained animal working with a trainer to perform a live show.

The experience gave Scott a new outlook on wild animals and their relationship to humans. His sense about the happy partnership of humans and marine mammals would never be the same. He knew his role had to change. He wanted to be more of an advocate than he could be at the Seaquarium. He decided to leave the Seaquarium and go to vet school.

Scott (and his new wife Kathy) left the Seaquarium together and moved to California. Scott applied to and was accepted into Davis Veterinary School. A new chapter in his life had begun.

Scott had many experiences with wild animals as a veterinarian in the years to come, but he would never forget how his naive childhood love of dolphins had evolved at the Miami Seaquarium.

He didn’t stop loving dolphins, but from that time on his daily life was shared with a pack of large dogs instead of dolphins and that seemed just right to everyone.

Rocky the Rocketman protecting mankind (between naps).

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About Sheri Amsel

Sheri Amsel has degrees in Botany and Zoology from the University of Montana 1980, a Master's Degree in Anatomy, Physiology and Biomedical Illustration from Colorado State University 1987. Ms. Amsel interned at the Smithsonian Institute in 1983 in Scientific Illustration, taught anatomy and biology at three colleges from 1990 - 1997. In addition, Ms. Amsel has published more than 15 nonfiction children's books, two field guides for adults, and illustrated a myriad of books and interpretive displays on nature and science topics. Ms. Amsel has done science programming at more than 300 schools nationally, developed more than 20 educational nature trails in New York State, and coordinates school visits to local nature trails for environmental education programs for the Eddy Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and habitat preservation. Ms. Amsel created the Exploring Nature Educational Resource website with the hopes of sharing her science and environmental education knowledge and experience with science educators and students worldwide.