Friday, May 14, 2010

Vallejo's Six Flags to begin 'Year of the Dolphin' program; allows public to swim with dolphins

By Rachel Raskin-Zrihen / Times-Herald
Posted: 05/14/2010 01:01:56 AM PDT

If you have to move through water, there's no cooler way than by holding on to a dolphin's dorsal fin. I know this, because on Thursday, I swam with a dolphin during Six Flags Discovery Kingdom's Year of the Dolphin kick-off event.

The new program, soon open to the public, includes a 45-minute, pre-encounter lesson on dolphin basics in the park's new classroom.

It's the next stage -- squeezing into a wetsuit -- that was most terrifying, at least for me, a person no longer as svelte as I once was. This was finally accomplished in the park's brand new locker room and shower facility.

Then the procession of media sausages made its way to the pool, where we met the trainers who would facilitate our encounter with several

Vallejo Times-Herald reporter Rachel Raskin-Zrihen and photographer Chris Riley get to know a dolphin during Thursday's media event at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. (Courtesy photo) Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.

Times-Herald photographer Chris Riley and I were in a group of four that spent some time with Terry, Discovery Kingdom's 50-year-old female bottlenose.

Education Supervisor Nisa Andersson, said dolphins typically live about 25 years, so Terry is among the nation's oldest. Other media representatives encountered dolphins Matti, 4, and the park's youngest, Mavrick, 21/2, which our group also had a chance to meet.

After hugging, stroking, kissing, dancing with and tossing fish treats to Terry, we each had a chance to hop a ride as she swam by, cutting through the water like a torpedo. Awesome.

The 20-minute in-water experience is followed by a short, soggy walk back to the locker room, the peeling off of the wetsuit, showering, dressing and assembling poolside for a gourmet lunch.

The dolphins swam, and occasionally took a peek at the diners, who enjoyed a delicious meal, including salad, a steak, chicken or vegetarian main course with sides, and dessert, which was, as they say, to die for.

We all agreed with our table-mate, who noted it was probably a good thing there was no fish on the menu.

Park officials are working to partner with several Napa Valley wineries, Andersson Mavrick, a 2-year-old, inquisitive dolphin, gets a closer look through the viewing window in the Dolphin Encounters pool at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom on Thursday. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald) said. The hope is to offer their wines at the luncheon and create a relationship to foster winery visitors coming to Discovery Kingdom and vice-versa, she said.

The dolphin experience cost ranges from about $200 for everything, including parking, the swim and the lunch, to $15 for a poolside dolphin petting encounter and photo.

Visitors can also buy paintings by the park's dolphins and killer whales, which range in price from $20 to $250.

"We hope that what our guests take away is an awe and respect for these amazing marine mammals," Park president Eric Gilbert said. "By making this unique connection -- literally face to face with Atlantic bottle nose dolphins -- participants may be motivated to learn more on their own, and understand the need to conserve their counterparts in the wild."