Never work with children or animals goes the saying. Whoever coined the phrase has obviously never been to Zoomarine to swim with the dolphins. Paul Rouse dons his wetsuit.
Like riding the big dipper or watching Antz, you don’t necessarily need children with you to have the time of your life at Zoomarine – it really does cater for all ages, and lets you into the water from eight up to eighty, as long as you are physically fit. But we kidnapped our young niece for the day and took her along with us anyway, just in case we needed an excuse.
We needn’t have worried. Our fellow participants ranged from ten year-old Cameron, who was avidly studying dolphins at school, to Natalie, delighting in her extra-special eighteenth birthday present and accompanied by her beaming mum. With several other mature adults – though I use the term advisedly - also in our small party, we certainly didn’t feel out of place. We had all become kids at heart for the day.
Purists might argue that experiences like this should only be undertaken in the wild. But that’s not always feasible, and can often involve a long journey, vast expense, and the need to be a strong and confident swimmer. None of which applies at places like Zoomarine which, it has to be stressed, has an exemplary record for care and conservation.
And at least in captivity, your pleasure is guaranteed: having recently been taken on a whale-watching trip whilst in Canada, and assured that there was a 97% chance of a viewing, I can’t begin to tell you how disappointing it was to be there on one of the 3% of occasions when the whales decided to have a duvet day.
There’s no such problem in the Algarve. Zoomarine is open from mid-March to early November, and whilst it is inevitably at its most popular during the summer months, don a full-length wetsuit and you can share the pool with Hamlet and friends – yes, they all have names – when the weather has cooled and the tourist crowds have thinned a little.
Not that anything should get in the way of your pleasure, whatever the season, as the numbers allowed into the pool at any one time are carefully controlled to make sure that you, and just as importantly the dolphins, enjoy every minute of your one-and-a-half hour session.
Sized up and changed into our fetching blue-black wetsuits, complete with Zoomarine logo, the morning started with an introductory talk: a fascinating insight into the biology and ecology of the bottlenose dolphins we were about to encounter, including important tips on such things as communication and establishing trust for when you eventually get up close and personal with them in the water. Dolphins, we were told eagerly, are intelligent, playful and sociable. Crazy about balls and hula-hoops, as you might imagine, of all the toys that exist, it’s nice to know they seem to find humans the most entertaining. As my dolphin was called Louis, It looked like it was going to be the start of a beautiful friendship.
We all then filed into the pool area, and as we slipped into the water, that’s when the real fun began, as the dolphins started to perform some of their party pieces by way of a warm-up, including back flips, somersaults and standing up in the water, side-by-side like a comedy double-act – all rewarded, of course, with a fishy treat from their (and our) trainer for the day, the delightful Caroline, who obviously enjoys her job. Who wouldn’t, having this much fun every day and getting paid for it?
Stroking, petting and kissing the animals, she explained, is not only allowed, but actively encouraged. It helps form a bond between you and the dolphin, and they certainly appear to love it as much as you do. They are incredibly tame, very friendly, and desperately cute. Hamlet endeared himself to us straight away, and my wife, not for the last time that day, vowed that she wanted to take him home. Luckily I managed to talk her out of it. I don’t think our dogs would have been too impressed by the competition, and in any case, our swimming pool isn’t big enough.
The one at Zoomarine certainly is, and we were treated to a full display of dolphin talents, from hoop-jumping and choreographed diving to ball-juggling skills not seen since George Best in his heyday. We sat there open-mouthed, like the first time you are taken to the circus. But the best, literally, was yet to come. Seeing the dolphins perform these remarkably agile and acrobatic feats at close quarters was a fabulous experience in its own right. Being an active part of it – which is what was to happen next – turned out to be truly extraordinary.
First I was whisked around in circles by Louis, his nose only seeming to gently nudge the soles of my feet but generating amazing power and speed in the process: a true adrenaline-rush. My wife and niece meanwhile chose to dance with Hamlet, the three of them circling each other like teenagers at a disco, the girls with a fit of the giggles, Hamlet smiling from ear to ear. With Gloria Gaynor on the PA system, all that was missing was the handbags.
And finally, the tour de force: being propelled from one end of the pool to the other by our new friends. Like water-skiing in reverse, the dolphins place their noses under your feet and, on command, zoom across the pool at full speed, pushing you in front of them, as you hold on to your surf board for dear life desperately trying not to swallow lungfuls of water. At the side of the pool, you can hear the sound of laughter coming from everybody else. But you get your revenge a few moments later when it’s their turn!
It was a wonderful end to what had been a superb day, and we just wanted to stay in the water and do it all over again. It had been an incredible experience – funny, delightful and exhilarating – and the memories will stay with us for a long time: the eager sense of anticipation for days beforehand, the wild shrieks of delight, and the running commentary about how “fabulous” the whole day had been. It is exactly what you would have expected from a deliriously happy nine year-old. But that was just my wife.
Zoomarine is located near Guia, on the EN-125. Set in 20 acres of parks and gardens, it includes aquariums, other natural animal habitats, live shows, funfairs, swimming pools, educational facilities and a 4D cinema. Entrance to the park costs €19 for young children (up to age 10) and €28 for older children and adults. Swimming with the dolphins costs €169 per person for a 90-minute session, including admission to the park. Accompany spectators pay €21 (child) and €30 (adult).
THE NEXT GENERATION
Zoomarine is committed to promoting understanding and awareness of marine life by encouraging environmental education, and is a member of numerous international marine organisations. A pioneer in dolphin veterinary care, it finances research, medical and rehabilitation initiatives, and offers a series of programmes designed to arouse a passion for learning, especially amongst the young.