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Aquatic adventures

Set amidst the lush greenery of Creek Park, Dubai Dolphinarium has quickly become one of the city’s most popular attractions since opening in 2008. The indoor venue regularly hosts popular aquatic shows that star bottlenose dolphins and seals performing a host of amazing tricks such as dancing, juggling and even painting to the command of their trainers. This bond between humans and these incredible creatures has been built over time and is one that’s incredibly strong.

Aside from dolphin and seal shows, Dubai Dolphinarium hosts a number of other highlights including an exotic bird show with over 20 different species, the country’s first mirror maze and, more recently, Dolphin Planet where guests can swim with a dolphin. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most people,” explains Jose Huet, a trainer at Dolphin Planet, who joined the team in 2015.

“For many people, to touch or swim with a dolphin is a dream and they are often overcome with emotion when it actually comes true at Dolphin Planet. Several months ago, a little girl who had terminal cancer travelled all the way from London to swim with dolphins here. Her family and friends were watching her swim, living her dream. We arranged everything because we knew how important it was to her and we were all so touched by the experience,” adds Huet.

Behind the scenes at Dolphin Planet, there’s a lot to account for and Huet starts his day examining the dolphins and making sure they are in good health – not just physically but also emotionally.

“People always wonder about my job and what being a dolphin trainer involves. It’s not like a normal job as dealing with animals makes each day completely different. Every morning we begin with routine examinations. We need to check everything from the dolphins’ eyes and mouth to their body as well as breathing levels to see if they are okay. We sometimes collect samples for testing, if necessary. Whether it’s something big or small, we keep track of it all.

“A huge part of being a trainer is staying on top of all these medical aspects and monitoring their wellbeing. That’s the priority. After that, it depends on what the dolphins will be doing. So say, for example, if they are going to be interacting with people, you have to observe how they move and if they are careful with their movements around people. For the shows, they will have to perform tricks so the trainers have to make sure they exercise so they stay fit. You give the dolphins what they want, whether it’s food or special attention, to reinforce a desired behaviour and then build on that relationship,” explains Huet.

Huet is one of five trainers at Dubai Dolphinarium where there’s a real family atmosphere amongst the team.

“I remember looking out of the plane and seeing Dubai for the very first time – it looked completely different from Mexico. Then on my first day at Dubai Dolphinarium, I was walking around and it was all so new but then, when I smelt the familiar scent of salt water, it was like I was coming home.”

Huet makes training dolphins look incredibly easy, interacting with them at Dolphin Planet with natural ease. He grew up surrounded by animals and distinctly remembers the first experience that ignited his interest in marine life. “Keiko the orca from the movie Free Willy used to be in Mexico at the Reino Aventura (now called Six Flags Mexico). When I was younger I really, really wanted to go there to see him. I don’t remember all the details but I do remember the emotions I felt while there. The experience sparked my curiosity because I wanted to know everything I could about him – what orcas liked and thought, and what they did,” explains Huet.

While he went on to study photography at university, he took up a job at Vallarta & Cabo Adventures, photographing the animals and trainers. The role involved closely observing their interactions and, after a couple of years, he switched roles to become a trainer himself.

“One of the hardest steps for a trainer is learning to communicate with an animal that doesn’t ‘speak’ in the conventional sense. Dolphins cannot hear like we do, so we communicate through observing their body language and using hand signals and body gestures. “Dolphins are not the only aquatic animal I’ve worked with. I have also spent time working with sea lions, sharks and others in the past. Sometimes people who start out as a trainer are able to understand that connection between humans and dolphins and sometimes they don’t, but once they can, it really does open a whole new door. For me it was a little bit easier because, when I was a photographer, I already spent time in and around the environment and observed it all. I was also very lucky to have great mentors in my life.”

From witnessing dolphins give birth to watching calves grow and adjust in their environment, Huet has many career highlights to be proud of. His enthusiasm for his profession shows no signs of fading, especially as he holds dolphins in such high regard. “While dolphins are universally regarded as very intelligent creatures and are known to have friendly personalities, it’s magnificent to see just how close they can be to people and the bonds that they can form, and this is immediately apparent to every visitor at Dolphin Planet in Dubai Dolphinarium. To me, the personalities and behaviour of dolphins is simply amazing.”

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