Durban - Durban's legendary dolphin Gambit performed in the first Sea World Carols by Candlelight in 1993 and has performed in the festive show every year since – except for one year.
That was the year, said uShaka Sea World's curator of animal welfare, behaviour and visitor experience, Gabrielle Harris, Gambit went on strike because he was “more interested in making babies” with his partner, Frodo.
The show started as a carols evening many years ago, but has now evolved into a full length show, Dolphins By Starlight, and is a much anticipated annual event on Durban's calendar.
This week Gambit and the other dolphins at uShaka Sea World were practising for the show, which starts on Friday, December 8.
Harris said: “For all our animals, when we train them, it's about choice. If they don't feel like doing something, that's okay, they still get their reward. Food is used as a communication tool.”
An example is a yellow buoy that Frodo touches with her nose when she does not want to do something.
“She's saying no and then we know there's a reason for that, perhaps the instruction is not clear,” she added.
When it comes to preparing for shows, the dolphins undergo desensitisation training for new stimuli such as lights, music and objects on stage. They are also adjusted to a new timing for their routine of the day.
“You can't control a 500kg dolphin such as Gambit so it's got to be trainer and dolphin working together. The dolphins are very tuned into posture and if the trainer is anxious, the dolphin gets anxious.
“So we are aware of all these things, but it is also very exciting for our animals to learn something new. At the moment the trainers are spending more time with the dolphins and, done properly, it's a fun, novel and exciting time for them. There's a whole new structure for the Christmas show. Lighting is one of the biggest and the music is different, so we are gradually including these in the rehearsal schedules. It is fun, especially seeing the dolphins’ reactions to new things,” said Harris.
Gambit, who has done the Christmas show for 20 plus seasons, still enjoys being out there in front of an audience.
“Gambit is the ultimate showman. He owns that stage and has that extra sparkle when he comes out that everyone loves,” she said.
According to Harris, Gambit is still lovestruck with Frodo. Gambit arrived at Sea World when it was still at the old facility in 1976 and Frodo arrived in 1979 with the two pairing up and being together ever since.
“Gambit worships the water she travels through. He may be 500kg and she's 170kg, but she's the boss, she's very much woman power,” said Harris.
The two dolphins are grandparents, with dolphin Nokanya being their “grandson” offspring.
“If Gambit is uninterested and won't go out, that's fine. One season he was more interested in making babies with Frodo and did not want to perform. We always look at the welfare of the animals holistically,” she said.
Attending and presenting at conferences around the world, Harris said many of the animals at Sea World underwent training, from the sharks to the turtles and fish.
“They have to be trained for examination and medical treatment. But we have also had guests touch a shark and have an experience with turtles. Our animals must enjoy the process and not just ‘do’ the process.
“Our goal is for people to have that experience of meeting an animal and seeing it as a sentient being, and to become aware that creatures need to survive and eat.
“We need to get away from thinking of the world as our resource, but rather that we are part of it.
“We have trained the dolphins for many years, we relate to them and they help spread this message. There's a connection there that's beyond words,” said Harris.
The Independent on Saturday