Nellie was a very smart animal and I had no idea what I was about to learn when I first took the microphone at my new job. I was in college and this was just a job to pay some bills I thought. I would realize later in life that this position working with dolphins would teach me some very important lessons about life. It was in many ways the groundwork for my career as a social worker although I had no idea at the time.
When I look back on my career working with children, teens and adults in the mental health and educational system I rarely do not have a memory of the most peaceful training job I ever had, the easiest and the most fun in certain ways. I have no regrets about getting into social work and helping people, but I often remember the job I had working closely with and learning to perform with Nellie the bottlenose dolphin.
Nellie was almost 40 when I was a new guy on the scene, just wading my way around the aquarium and trying to understand how these awesome dolphins were interacting with staff working with them. It was a job I looked forward to each day and for good reason. No matter what was going on in my life, no matter what my personal stress level- the dolphins were uninterested. Each day as I walked along the tank where they played I was sure to be greeted with a tail slap sending a wave of water over me, just as a ” good morning ” to me! Most of the time they would swim along side of me as I walked, eyeing me to see what my mood was.
Amazingly, on the few times I strolled past them when I was not feeling good, they dove off into the water, leaving me alone and giving me my space. I would learn later that they can sense when people are ill, even when a woman is with child!
So as I spent my time there, getting to know each dolphin day by day, practicing our show that we would perform 3x per day for huge crowds on the oceanfront stadium I was transformed by the ability of these animals to adjust to an environment that was not their natural one .
Not only did they adapt, but they thrived and had fun there every day.
After a few months and 100 shows together, I became comfortable in our routine and could predict just when each dolphin would jump and how high, amazing the crowds!
It was the dream job and there was something about it that would lift any soul out of anguish even if just for the day. I got to work around happy dolphins, and was dealing with the happiest audiences in the world. I saw people at their best each day, it was a pleasure to be with both the dolphins and the people. I met celebrities who came out of nowhere just to touch a dolphin. I remember Pat Boone shaking my hand after I let him toss a fish into the open mouth of a dolphin, and being in the midst of movie stars as they filmed movies on location.
Nellie was an older dolphin and would be the only one to give me a hard time when I needed it. She would periodically leave me hanging during a show, refusing to appear from the tank an jump up in the air at my cue. I first thought she was just old, until a seasoned trainer told me that this was her way of breaking me in, a way of letting me know that she could put the show to a screeching halt at any second!
It was 6 months before she let up and complied for every show, 6 long months.
Nellie was training the trainer!
I went on a few years later to enter into a profession where I worked with people when they were at their worst, and there were no dolphins to make my day easier. Social work was not for the faint of heart, and I spent many years in some of the darkest places working with some very trouble people.
I am thankful for both jobs however and wouldn’t change a thing. Sometimes when I am dealing with a tough situation or teenager, I recall Nellie refusing to perform for me- and I smile. Somehow that dolphin taught me to find the good in any situation and it stuck.
I had a well thought out point to make in this post, but I think I will leave it as it is. Everyone should have a memory like that, something to make us smile when nobody else is. Nowadays, my motto is to go out each day and make people wonder how I am still smiling, still seeing the positive in things. Nellie taught me to lighten up, to laugh at things. Thanks Nellie.