Las Vegas may be known for its arid climate, but that hasn’t stopped one of its major attractions, the Dolphin Habitat, from making waves on a daily basis.
Since opening in 1990, Dolphin Habitat at The Mirage has strived to further human appreciation and understanding of wildlife conservation through its education and research programs.
Even in the desert, it’s a mission that has proven to hold water, having impacted huge amounts of visitors from all around the world, many of whom have never even seen an ocean in their lifetime.
The latest big news to come out of the Dolphin Habitat, which is accredited through the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums and recently received American Humane Conservation Certification for animal welfare, is the birth of a healthy female calf, Coco, on July 17.
The baby, which was named through an employee contest, is a welcome addition to the three generations of dolphins in residence that include her grandma, Duchess; mom, Huf n Puf; and her sister, Bella.
This is the third time the facility has experienced such a generational occurrence, and its importance is highlighted by the fact that bottlenose dolphins, the species found at the habitat, are endangered.
“By connecting visitors with an animal or a member of our team, we can lead them to impact the environment in major ways. Our animal care team members are ambassadors for conservation. It’s hard to protect something you don’t understand,” said Erin Wise, supervisor of dolphin care.
“You can’t hear dolphins in the wild breathe or look them in the eye. Bottlenose dolphins are coastal, so they share space with humans. Their numbers are being diminished through human impact, such as their getting caught in gill nets, as well as by pollution and agricultural runoff, which causes biotoxins like mercury to accumulate in their bodies.”
Wise noted that the animals at The Mirage provide really valuable information to help assist with dolphins in the wild. The Dolphin Habitat shares its research with other accredited research groups with which it collaborates.
For example, it recently worked with the U.S. Navy on how sound in water impacts the dolphins’ health. That information will be shared with the other facilities, and the Navy also can share those findings with entities like the oil drilling industry.
Many other areas of research are being conducted at the habitat as well, including a dolphin allergy study. The staff also is working with researchers at Oceanogràfic in Valencia, Spain, where Dr. Andreas Fahlman and his team are using a flowmeter, which was designed by the doctor.
The flowmeter has helped them establish a baseline for healthy dolphin respiration, so that if a dolphin is stranded, it immediately can be determined if its lungs are healthy.
“We have also learned a lot about (bottlenose) dolphin reproduction that we can apply to how other dolphins reproduce,” Wise explained. “Six of our 10 dolphins were born here. Right now, there is a big rescue going on for the vaquita dolphin, which lives off Baja, California, in the Sea of Cortez and the Gulf of California.
“There are only about 30 in the wild, and the Mexican government has issued an emergency response to collect them and breed them. The U.S. Navy is sending bottlenose dolphins to locate them. What we’ve learned here about dolphin reproduction can help.
“According to ongoing research, dolphins in the wild only live about 14 years,” she continued, mentioning, however, that she was aware of one dolphin in another facility that did live to be 60 years old.
“They can live over the age of 25 in an accredited facility. Duchess, Coco’s grandmother and Huf n Puf’s mother, is 42 years old; and Lightning, the father of Coco, Bella, K2 and Mira Mar, is 39.
The dolphins here are healthy and not in stressful situations, while dolphins in the wild are always searching for food, avoiding predators and dealing with the weather.”
Because the dolphins at The Mirage don’t have those survival issues to deal with, it is important to keep them mentally stimulated in other ways. The trainers have strong relationships with all the animals because the facility doesn’t want the dolphins to be dependent upon only one or two.
“You have to have a strong relationship with an animal that weighs more than 600 pounds,” Wise said. “One of the fun parts for me is figuring out what makes each dolphin tick, and what motivates it and keeps it engaged.
According to Wise, people have a misconception that the trainers make the dolphins do things for fish, but she said that’s not true. Each dolphin has its own specific personality, she explained, and learning their individual distinctive characters is the puzzle of a trainer’s job.
“It comes down to quality time spent with them. Most of the trainers have a behavioral background. I have a B.S. in psychology,” she said. “Our job is to know what normal behavior is for every dolphin in the habitat.
“They have off days, too,” she added. “But they are not people, so we don’t look at them as being happy or sad. Although, humans like to anthropomorphize them, which is to give them human characteristics. We judge them by their behavior.
“These animals have great vision They can recognize each of us no matter what we are wearing. Are they popping their heads up or swimming in the opposite direction? We are always concerned with their physical and mental health.”
Wise expressed that much of what we know about dolphins was discovered through human care. Such is the case with echolocation, which is like a sixth sense with which animals, and even humans, can visualize what an object looks like without actually seeing it by forming a mental picture based on sound waves. Trainers use vocalizations, such as clicks and whistles, to communicate with the dolphins.
At the habitat, many of the things the trainers do with the dolphins are extensions of what the animals do in the wild. They are just done on signal. Natural behaviors include tail-walking, jumping, slapping their tails, waving their flippers and breaching on their sides.
The Dolphin Habitat has many fun and educational opportunities for visitors to get up close and personal with the dolphin inhabitants, such as the Meet-and-Greet program, Yoga with the Dolphins, Paint with the Dolphins, a VIP tour and Trainer for a Day. All are designed to allow the public to make a connection with these beautiful creatures while keeping the dolphins stimulated.
The habitat also has a partnership with the Clark County School District, believing that if it can get to kids early enough, it will impact them where animal conservation and sustainability is concerned.
“We want everyone who visits us to walk away with a greater appreciation of these animals,” Wise said. “We want them to have a little more respect for them, and knowledge about what they can do to help dolphins and the environment. That’s the biggest thing.”