Dolphin trainer for a day, Jonathan trainer for a lifetime

February 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

Balam, a dark grey bottle nose dolphin, gingerly swam on his back with a colorful container balanced between his fins. He was bringing me a gift, Valerie, his trainer, said. But about halfway across the lagoon, the container rolled off his belly, so he flipped over and started pushing it with his nose. I laughed, delighted, utterly unaware of what was inside.

Balam nosing along

When Jonathan first told me that my Valentine’s day gift was a dolphin “trainer for a day” course, I was ecstatic. I had swam with dolphins once before, but this opportunity seemed even better: a full-day, immersive dolphin experience.

The dolphin experience was scheduled to be on Valentine’s day, sandwiched between two days of drift diving along the reefs of Cozumel and two days of cave diving in the cenotes in Tulum. As soon as we arrived at the facility, I was giddy like a little kid at a candy shop.

After some introductory lectures on how to handle the dolphins, we were escorted to a lagoon to meet the dolphins. Our first activity had Zeus, our first dolphin friend, painting t-shirts for us. We’d hold up a t-shirt and Zeus would paint the shirt by moving his head side to side with a paint brush fixed to his nose. To be honest, it made for some pretty unattractive shirts, although that didn’t stop me from wearing it for the next two days straight!

After painting, we got to swim out and pet Zeus and his buddy Byron. Then one by one, Zeus and Byron took us on a tandem dorsal fin ride. Each ride was pretty short but exhilarating. Throughout the day we also played with Simo and her four-month-old baby, Kai, along with a few other dolphins in the lagoon. We pet and fed them in exchange for being “escorted” by them in various configurations (foot push, belly ride, etc.). The trainers even arranged a scuba diving activity where we descended underwater to hear the dolphins’ noises and interact them in their natural medium.

My favorite activity was the foot push. It was so exciting to feel the dolphin’s nose in my foot and be propelled faster than I could ever swim myself. I envy the dolphin trainers who get to jump, play and learn from them every day. I’m sure it’s exhausting, but I bet it’s so fun.

There were admittedly a few less-than-ideal moments during the day. First, we all got really cold. The sun would play hide and seek behind the clouds, and we were shivering half the time, despite all leaving with a nasty sunburn. (Sunscreen isn’t allowed due to the chemicals it leaks into the water.) Our interactions were also very controlled due to the dolphins’ strict training regimen; for example we were asked not to touch the babies. I had to wheedle my way into being allowed to feed a fish to one of the dolphins. When I finally got the chance, I, in an act of defiance, surreptitiously fed him TWO fish instead of the ONE we were asked to feed (while the trainer gave him 10 in one mouthful!). No dolphins were hurt during my rebellion.

At the end of the day, Valerie, the head trainer, asked Jonathan and me to help her with one last exercise. It was at this moment that I knew Jonathan was going to propose.

How did I know? Throughout the entire day, Jonathan and I moved around in a foursome with a mother and son from Sweden who also purchased the same activity package. The woman was quite obviously a dolphin lover, ooh-ing and aah-ing at every interaction. When Valerie asked us to help her, she explained the absence of the Swedish pair by saying that they didn’t want to do it, but I knew this wasn’t true.  Jonathan had also started acting kind of funny. He had been perfectly normal the entire day, but as soon as Valerie said that, he fakely said, “Oohh I wonder what this is.” I have a sixth sense for Jonathan’s lies and deduced the situation immediately.

Still, I didn’t want to spoil the surprise, and I didn’t know exactly how he was going to do it. (I even had no idea that he was going to propose during this trip; we had agreed to get engaged by September so I thought he might propose later this year). Therefore I played along and pretended not to notice when I saw him fumbling around for the ring. Valerie introduced us to Balam and we took a few pictures with him and gave him the signals to jump. Finally, she told me that Balam had a gift for me and signaled for him to come over with the colorful tub.


Balam swam right up to us and gave me the container. I opened it to discover a series of foam alphabet letters strung together to form words. I pulled out each word, one-by-one, spelling in perfect sequence:  “Joanna–will–you–marry–me?” Jonathan knelt down on one knee, looked me in the eyes with a smile, and said, “Today you were a dolphin trainer for a day and now I’m asking you to be Jonathan trainer for life. Will you marry me?” I laughed and exclaimed, “Of course!” We kissed and embraced. Right then, Balam and the other dolphins started jumping into the air, and we turned to watch them celebrate this perfect moment with us.


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