BY LEAPS AND BOUNDS Aquarium's babies train for their big splash


He is a knife, a lithe gray blade slicing the water.

She is studious, practicing her perfect leaps over and over and over.

In their warm blue world, He and She, two dolphins born last March at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, are getting ready for their public debut. They will get names early next month. And soon they will take a bow at one of the dolphin shows in the light-splashed pools at the Marine Mammal Pavilion.

Among the mammalogist/trainers at the aquarium, the baby dolphins have already stolen the show. Since their births 2 1/2 weeks apart last March, they have reordered life in the dolphin pools.

When moms Shiloh and Hailey went on "maternity leave," for example, the dolphin demonstrations changed. The mix of the five adult dolphins -- two male and three female -- in the pools was altered so the mothers and their calves could be by themselves.

Dolphin calves usually come out tail first, and they are not all grace and agility. The mother sometimes has to push them to the surface for that first, vital breath of air. Their powerful tails, or flukes, are soft and curled into tubes. The dorsal fin that cuts through the water is limp and flopped on its side at birth. They glide beside Mom in her slipstream and if they leave her side, their swimming is a bit wobbly, "like a plane out of control," says mammalogist Steve Aibel.

For their first few months, He and She developed much like human babies. They nursed. They stayed close to Mom and didn't do much on their own. Dad was largely out of it. No offense, dads of the '90s; male dolphins can be aggressive, so Nalu and Akai, the two adult males, were initially isolated from the calves. (In fact, the mammalogists aren't even certain who Dad is.)

The babies' health will be monitored intensely all through this first precarious year. So far, He and She are thriving. And gradually, the babies have noticed the world and started to explore with enthusiasm.

"They have bright eyes," says Mr. Aibel. "Everything's new and ++ novel."

Seven months old now, they play with their mothers, with their toys, with each other and with the mammalogists who will one day train them for demonstrations. Born mimics, they even copy their moms' jumps and moves. One day, for example, Shiloh and She streaked through the water like F-16s in tight formation, separated by inches. Suddenly they cut to the right, then left, then right, another right, near 90-degree turns in perfect synchrony.

The babies will nurse for 18 to 24 months, but weaning begins when the calves get interested in solid food. Because fish are used to reward the dolphins, formal training for the shows won't begin until they start to supplement their mothers' milk with the fish provided by the mammalogists. Their acceptance of the fish the foundation for the bond of trust that must be built between trainer and dolphin. Until then, there is "basic" training, such as learning not to grab trainers with their mouths.

"We try to show them 'I provide fish, I'm a fun person to be with, we're going to have a good time out here,' " says Nedra Hecker, a curator of marine mammals at the aquarium.

At four months, formal training was still some time off; the pieces of fish tossed their way were just another toy. But their personalities -- and their star quality -- were already emerging.

"She will be easy to train because of her self-confidence," Ms. Hecker says. "She practices over and over and over -- flips, tail walks and jumps. He never does that.

"One day She did five to six somersaults, took a break, did some more," Ms. Hecker says. "The next day She sort of discovered how to do a tail walk and then practiced that."

A little less sure of himself at first, He is "now more outgoing, more interactive than her," says Ms. Hecker. Give him an audience, and He's ready to go -- even when it's just a few trainers by the pool working with the other dolphins. He plays enthusiastically, attracting attention when he "tackles" a bobbing basketball again and again, "waves" his pectoral flipper or races around the pool at top speed.

Dolphins in the wild do tail walks, leaps, spins and somersaultsThe babies have not been trained to do these "tricks." In fact, the mammalogists don't even call them "tricks," but "behaviors."

" 'Tricks' is degrading. Pets do 'tricks,' " says trainer Duncan Whittier.

"We're not tricking anybody," says Ms. Hecker. "There's nothing up my sleeve. They're doing what they do naturally."

All the trainers do is "extend their natural ability," she says. A dolphin in the wild may do a half-flip out of the ocean. "We train it like an Olympic athlete and make it a double-forward."

The rewards for doing these behaviors on command are different and random so the dolphins don't lose interest -- fish, toys, rubdowns. (Dolphins enjoy being touched and often rub against each other. What do they feel like? Not to strip them of their mystique, but they feel like hard, wet rubber bathmats.) Even the shows are changed constantly so the dolphins don't get bored.

Dolphins bored? Are they really smart enough to get bored? And are they smart like us, or smart in ways we are not smart enough to understand?

Even among the trainers, opinions vary.

"When I first started this it was a real letdown for me because I thought they were really human," says mammalogist Dave Schofield. "People think any day now we'll stumble onto the code of their communication and then we'll have these long, drawn-out discussions about how we're screwing up the environment. People come up to me all the time and say, 'How close are we?' "

Ms. Hecker is "amazed at how fast they are. Sometimes they can be way ahead of you. Sometimes they'll be steps ahead of you and then you have to step back and assess whether you're moving too slow for them." And yet she says she has not seen much of the problem-solving ability that has helped humans climb the evolutionary ladder.

Dolphins do have unusually large brains -- but then so do sheep and cows.

"Their brains are larger than ours, but they have a more complex sound system than we do," Ms. Hecker says. That larger brain is not necessarily "thinking mass."

As He goes through basic training, He unknowingly demonstrates his species' problem-solving limitations. During the shows, the dolphins are moved from pool to pool for different demonstrations. So one of the first things He and She must learn is to go into a different pool on command. And He can't do it.

One day in September, mammalogist Sue Hunter worked with him, holding a fish in the short passage from the main pool to the back pool. There was no barrier, and other dolphins moved freely from pool to pool. But He wouldn't do it. He hung in the entrance, stupefied.

Dolphins in the wild don't pass over or through things, so going through a short passage into another pool is not a natural behavior.

OK, so dolphins can't solve problems, so maybe they're not really smart, they're just trainable.

But there is the dolphin's amazing ability to use sound in ways that trillions of Defense Department dollars can't duplicate. Studies show that dolphins can detect the density of an object. They can "hear" a 1-inch steel sphere that is 72 meters away -- the equivalent of three-quarters of a football field. Some scientists even think dolphins may bombard a reef with sound waves to flush out hiding fish for dinner and perhaps even "stun" their prey with sound.

Dolphins' problem-solving ability is evident in "the whole process of [their] figuring out how to deal with us," says Carol Howard, a doctoral student of dolphin echolocation (the way they use sound) at the University of California at Santa Cruz. In newly captive dolphins she has worked with, their problem-solving ability was shown by "their adjustment to living with us and all the crazy things we asked of them. The whole deal must have been bizarre to them."

He and She, two essentially wild animals, will, for example, take physicals so their health can be monitored. On command, they )) will accept eye drops; open their mouths for examination; blow air from their blowholes into a petri dish so it can be checked for harmful bacteria and parasites; present their tails for a blood sample; and if necessary, swallow a feeding tube.

The "behaviors" at dolphin shows are the ones that wow the public, however.

At one show, a trainer gives Akai a quick, simple hand signal. Akai takes off in a graceful explosion out of the water, a perfect rainbow dive that builds into another. Then Nani, an adult female, does a "tail walk," propelling her 500 pounds across the pool on her fluke. In a sealed observation chamber sunk into the core of the dolphin pools, the locomotive thump of Nani's powerful engine comes through loud and clear; the sound of the crowd and the narrator's amplified voice do not.

It is also in the observation chamber that the viewer begins to see the dolphins as distinct animals. Standing over them or sitting in the stadium, you see shining gray streaks flashing through the water. But from an underwater-level window, with the dolphins hanging in front while awaiting a signal, their differences are clear.

Nani is huge, Nalu has a white patch on his fluke, and Akai, as the dominant male, is unmarked by nicks and scratches. Steve Aibel, watching them, talks about their personalities.

"Nani is dominant," Mr. Aibel says. "She's very aloof in that she does what she wants to do. She will displace one of the eating males but not vice versa. Akai is athletic. His jumps are always a little higher. Nalu learns new behaviors quickly."

The trainers, scientists though they may be, see the animals as individuals.

"Akai has cement in his head," Ms. Hecker says affectionately. "He's the brawn, Nalu's the brains. Nani is a sharp animal. But she's always pushing the boundaries. She'll test new trainers. She wants to know what level of dominance are you going to exhibit to get her to do a behavior."

The training is individualized. There are constant strategy sessions among the mammalogists as they teach the dolphins new behaviors. The "sessions" are brief; one may last all of two minutes, and there may be only five a day. The rewards are random. Punishment is simply lack of attention, what the trainers call "neutral response," since a negative reaction, being at least some kind of attention, can reinforce dolphin behavior. For example, the trainers believe the dolphins sometimes splash water on the front rows of spectators because they've "learned" that it gets a strong response from the crowd.

And the dolphins are definitely aware of the crowd. When they're alone they swim quietly, circling the pools and largely keeping to themselves. Puddles of light shimmer in the cerulean saltwater pools, and the atmosphere is contemplative, almost celestial. That changes as soon as spectators break the silence when they enter the stadium for a show. Suddenly, the dolphins start to preen, rehearsing their moves: Akai spins out of the water, Nalu waves his flipper. Show time!

As the demonstration begins, the trainers put the dolphinthrough their routines, building to a show-stopping finale:

Nalu and Akai surge down into the pool with trainer Jackie Weiner balanced on their noses. Suddenly they push up, up, up, rocketing out of the pool with the trainer still in place. They soar straight into the air, then all three dive back into the tank to wild applause.

Watching in the observation chamber, Mr. Aibel, who sees this all the time and has done it many times, is still impressed.

"A thousand pounds of streamlined muscle and bone," he says quietly. "That epitomizes the bond between the trainer and the ++ animals. If one dolphin doesn't push hard enough it won't work. If the other doesn't push hard enough it won't work. And if the

trainer's not in sync with them it won't work."

Working with the dolphins and getting in sync with them seems to reward the trainers.

"You join its social ladder somehow," says Ms. Hecker. "It's taught me respect for other species. It's helped focus my desire to improve the environment."

Says mammalogist Sue Hunter, "The dolphins get very exciteand we get excited, and we've actually communicated with them in a crude way."

The result is a bond that transcends species.

One day in late July, He looks at a fish, and suddenly the fish is not just a toy. He takes it in his mouth, and this time He swallows. The bond is beginning to form.

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