A life lived with dolphins

Salvino Thomas is a Caymanian who always wanted to be a veterinarian. He ended up being a dolphin trainer. And he’s only 18 years-old.

Thomas works at Dolphin Discovery Grand Cayman in West Bay right near the water.

He trains several of the bottle nose dolphins,there are ten in total, in the centre’s two million gallon, all-natural swimming tank that pumps ocean water in and refreshes itself throughout the day.

A common trait among those who work at this particular dolphinarium is their love and adoration for these intelligent creatures.

It’s this passion for dolphins that keeps young people like Thomas working with the animals, even though they know that there is opposition to what they do from people who do not believe dolphins should be kept in captivity.

Montserrat Maristany works as a sales supervisor in the first-level offices of Dolphin Discovery. She came from the Cozumel location in Mexico and, even though her background isn’t necessarily the direct path to working with dolphins, she has always loved animals

“In Mexico City I used to work for an advertising company,” she said. “Later on, after Wilma and all the damages on Cozumel, I started to look for a job and found an opportunity with this company.”

She says that she enjoys how the trainers are so involved with the animals.

“I have been with the company for three years,” she said. “I feel comfortable and everyone knows each other. Sometimes we’re like brothers and sisters.”

In obvious disagreement to those activists claiming that dolphins in captivity programs have released little-to-nothing in the way of public education, Maristany says that one the most important things to her is how Dolphin Discovery educates people about dolphins.

“In certain ways, it’s an educational and interactive program,” she said. “It’s not just fun, it’s about learning about these gorgeous animals.”

Dolphin Discovery’s general manager Carlos Moreno has operated the centre since the doors opened on 15 December, 2008. He says that the timing of the opening wasn’t necessarily the easiest way to begin operations in Cayman — the economic downturn and the backlash from anti-captivity demonstrators and activists have been major obstacles.

“It was hard, it’s still hard, but we’re there,” he said. “And it’s tough because this is not a product for everyone. It’s not a product that everyone can afford.”

“It’s expensive — the cost to keep a place like this is expensive — and since it’s considered a luxury, it’s a little bit tougher to get the people in,” he said.

Cruise ship passengers make up roughly 60 per cent of Dolphin Discovery’s customers, with the other 40 per cent coming from on island tourism. Many of these tourists who visit the centre don’t know about or care for choosing sides in the ongoing debate about dolphins in captivity. Visitors go to be awed by the animals.

Moreno says that Dolphin Discovery always tries to exceed the customer’s expectations, which is reinforced by the constant cheering laughter coming from the visitors already in the water interacting with the dolphins.

Every time a dolphins does a jump or trick, the crowd snaps photos and erupts in applause.

Moreno explains the difference between a handler — something that he has done and still helps out with — and a trainer — someone who is actually working with the dolphins and teaching them.

“If you start training an animal, it needs continuity,” he said. “That trainer knows how far he can go with the animal. If I change the trainer, the dolphin might start two or three steps back.”

“I can go as a manager and give a program, get a whistle, and give them signals, signals that the dolphin already knows,” he said. “But trainers teach them how to do a somersault. I don’t know how to do that. Training requires timing, patience, and many other things.”

Salvino Thomas was born on Grand Cayman but grew up on Cayman Brac. He wanted to be a vet, but he wasn’t apt at the science and English requirements.

“I saw the opportunity here that the company was looking for a dolphin trainer and they were going to train them at the facility, so I sent in the stuff that they required,” he said. “After a little bit, I got the interview and I got called in and I got the job.”

He always wanted to work with animals and still has to pinch himself because he works with dolphins. He says there is a lot of luck involved in getting this job, but he’s thankful.

“When I went on vacation, I just wanted to come back to work,” he said. “I couldn’t stay away long.”

He still has hope in learning the logistical side of working with dolphins that could hopefully lead to being a dolphin veterinarian. For the time being, he is focusing on learning to train dolphins.

Thomas talks about the hard work, but the rewarding side balances his life.

Volunteers come from all over the world to work with Dolphin Discovery over the summer, spending two months working for free in hopes of one day becoming a dolphin trainer.

“We know they love it because they spend their whole vacation working for nothing,” Moreno said. “We know that those guys will be excellent trainers.”

Moreno still has to be the boss, so he walks the fine line of being strict and inevitably becoming close to the staff at Dolphin Discovery.

“We are like a family,” he said. “When we have a hurricane, the trainers will stay with the dolphins. Training dolphins is a 24-hour commitment.”

Working with dolphins isn’t a job, according to Moreno, it’s a life one that is sometimes controversial but ultimately it is about a love for the dolphins.