„One Spot – Plenty to do!“
Heike, the director of the dolphin therapy center, which is located in the heart of the Curacao Sea Aquarium, welcomes us warmly. In the shade at the edge of the pools she explains the preparations and the course of a dolphin therapy and gives us an insight into the local centre. The team consists of more than ten therapists, who come from a wide variety of specialties: Speech therapists, occupational and physiotherapists, speech therapists – the range is wide. Because the patients who come here for therapy – mainly children and young adults who have already been here as children – also have very different illnesses, disabilities and also therapy goals. Heike makes it clear that none of this has anything to do with miracle healing. The dolphins are part of a holistic therapy strategy and support it – on the one hand through their direct feedback on the behaviour of the patients, on the other hand through movement in the water. But before the therapy can even begin, a series of conversations are necessary. With patients, parents, therapists and treating physicians. The basic diagnoses, therapy successes and the desired goals are clarified, as well as the indispensable airworthiness certificate and a certificate that the patient can even go into the water. With the support of two therapists, of course. This therapy team is put together individually for each patient, depending on what the goal is: a change in behaviour, improvement of motor skills, or or. The range of possible therapy goals is so wide that Heike interrupts the list. We don’t have that much time after all.
Swimming in the dolphin therapy centre
The therapy itself consists of various modules, which are repeated here daily for 14 days: half an hour in the therapy room, for example for physiotherapy, speech therapy, psychotherapy, followed by an hour in the water with the dolphin. Afterwards it’s time to shower, change clothes – because everyday skills are at the top of the list of elements to be promoted. The holiday situation also has the advantage that homework is given to patients and companions – usually parents, friends and close relatives – and feedback is possible the next day. In this way, the behaviour not only of patients but also of the environment can be reflected and changed. We will see how important this is live.
After a while things get serious for Adina, too, because even though she didn’t come to Curacao for dolphin therapy but as a travel blogger, she is allowed to go into the water with the dolphins in the dolphin therapy center. So are all wheelchair users who want to experience dolphin swimming – because at the front of the public area, where regular swimming with dolphins is offered for tourists, this is not possible for wheelchair users. Here in the protected dolphin therapy centre, which has its pontoons at its own pools, therapists and aids such as a lift are available to make this wish possible for people with disabilities outside of dolphin therapy. A further advantage: the Special Swim gives the guests more time for preparation and with the dolphin on the one hand, and on the other hand they have pontoon, dolphin and therapists for themselves. Equipped with a life jacket, Adina goes into the water on a lowerable pontoon. She has written down her dolphin swimming experiences HERE…
The Sea Aquarium
The sun dries the hair quickly. We stroll through the large complex, which was built here on the edge of Willemstad on an artificial lagoon. At intervals of a few minutes the minibuses that characterize the image of Willemstad drive from the city centre of Punda to Bapor Kibra, very close to the new Mambo Boulevard. The Curacao Sea Aquarium site is reached via a bridge under which a shark makes its rounds. To the right of the entrance, next to the Submarine Station, where visitors can dive into the Caribbean in a mini submarine, seals can enjoy the sunshine in another outdoor pool.
Behind the entrance to the Sea Aquarium, a flamingo rescue station is the first thing you notice, where stranded flamingos are fed. Inside the building, which provides pleasant shade, there are numerous aquariums with incredibly colourful fish and other native sea creatures. Outside there are more open basins, behind them, separated from the sea only by a few stones, are the pools where the dolphins are trained. Visitors can watch the training sessions every hour, and the Curacao Sea Aquarium also offers different types of dolphin swimming – more about this later. On the other side, which is facing the land, a boat comes up in a basin in which black shadows glide back and forth. I still have no idea that I will get to know these shadows very soon – up close. But first we have something else in mind: a boat tour on the Pelican Express, an amazingly wheelchair accessible boat that is located very close to the diving school. From there we will head into the Spanish waters, a secluded large bay with small islands, golf club and other upper class amenities, and then head towards Willemstad at sunset.
The entrance of the Pelican Express is practically at the same level as the jetty. So it is no problem to board the boat. Thus, the lower deck is mostly accessible, only the part on the bow of the boat is not accessible, as the two entrances next to the steering position are too narrow for this, and also the toilet is not accessible. But it should be enough for a two-hour boat tour – and drinks, tasty snacks and more are served by the staff during the trip. But first of all: hold on! The constant strong wind, which usually blows from the direction of Mexico, whips up the sea. We feel this when the boat leaves the harbour book and sets course to the southeast: it stomps violently, but the crew knows the Caribbean of course and puts the boat safely into the waves. Less than 30 minutes later, we are already accustomed to the sea and the boat enters to the north into the Spanish water that has a very own charm with expensive resorts, yachts and millionaire domiciles. Beautiful little islands, on which there is only one villa and which can only be reached by boat, private beach included – the exclusivity of this location is beyond question and becomes clear at the latest when looking at the grass-green golf resort in the middle of the dry steppe. After some time, we will return to the north-west – to Willemstad to watch the sunset from the harbour.
In the meantime it has become dark. As usual in the Caribbean, twilight comes very early here and is very fast: shortly before 7 pm there is still bright sunshine, a few minutes later it is pitch black. We enter the harbour again and end the day with a Caribbean barbecue and some drinks at Hemingway, a restaurant directly on the beach. It does not take too long. Here on Curacao the days are shorter, which is also due to the heat, which doesn’t really decrease at night. 30 degrees, all year round, day and night – no wonder that public life starts relatively late and ends early. I also have to gather some strength, because I have an appointment the next day at the Sea Aquarium – namely at the Ocean Encounter, right there at that boat, under which eerie shadows were swimming around. And the longer I think about what I got myself into, the more nervous I get.
Stingrays and sharks up close
Shortly before 11 o’clock I report to the Oceans Encounter for my snorkel as agreed. Thanks to a pronounced sunburn, which I had already contracted while snorkeling despite all caution, I sit on the pontoon together with two other couples in T-shirts, put on my fins, test my diving goggles with the camera mounted on them, and listen to the instructions. The rays have no sting anymore, but contact with the rough tail can be painful. Feeding the sharks – what, SHARKS?! – keep your hand above the hole in the Plexiglas wall, otherwise the shark might suck them in. Whew, all right. The same goes for feeding the turtle. Good, the sharks and turtles are fed through the wall. But the rays are in the same tank as us.
(photos: Turtle & Ray Productions)
When, after having swum in to get used to the environment, we actually come to feed and sit on a stone at the edge of the pool, my tension eases and I am amazed: I have rarely touched anything as soft, smooth and gentle as a ray. But their minds are anything but timid: they know about the upcoming feeding and push us hard, so hard that I almost slide off the stone several times: two rays came rushing at full speed from the right, and I had difficulties to keep on the stone and on the other hand to implement the strict prohibition to keep the fish outside the water for feeding. This is exactly what the countless pelicans that have gathered here in the meantime are waiting for – much to the dissatisfaction of the local staff. And as unbelievably gentle as the surface of the rays is, the warning about the tail was justified, as I was able to experience for myself: it felt like a grater when it touched my forearm. Ouch.
Then we went on to the turtles and the sharks. The procedure here is always the same: dive down, hold the fish in front of the hole, and at the same time make sure that the mackerel don’t get it in the meantime, as they are also constantly roaming hungrily through the tank here – which failed several times – and reappear. After a few feedings and remaining free diving we went back ashore where Adina was waiting with the camera in her hand. After drying and changing clothes, the first pictures of Turtle&Ray, the underwater photographer who accompanied us, were also ready. Some of the pictures were worth it – when else do you have the opportunity to be photographed underwater by a diver in such an environment…?
A dolphin encounter
My farewell date from Sea Aquarium was finally my own dolphin swimming. I decided to book the Dolphin Encounter in the pool – one of three possible variations: a short meeting at the edge of the pool with kisses and a photo, swimming in the pool, and a dive in the open sea with the dolphins. After a briefing and a film worth seeing about the Caribbean, the acute threat to numerous sea dwellers through garbage and shipping and the great commitment of the Dolphin Academy in this area together with OceanCare.org we went to the pool. Two dolphins greeted the new guests friendly in their territory and engaged in a series of games, from swimming together to water battles and kissing. They also felt amazing: Soft, smooth, but not slippery, a bit like scratching a balloon. Looking back, the Animal Encounter with the rays was more impressive for me in the end. Nevertheless, both encounters remained in impressive memory for me, and even if this travelogue really appears very late: none of these experiences has lost its shine!
This post is also available in: German