MARATHON SHORES, Fla. -- This was one time 8-year-old Emily Kasmer was glad to get pushed around by a couple of older, much bigger kids. In fact, Emily can't wait to see them again.
That's because these two older kids -- 10-year-old Santini and 12-year-old Elita -- are dolphins at the not-for-profit Dolphin Research Center on Grassey Key, home to a colony of bottlenose dolphins who live in Gulf of Mexico lagoons here.
One hot Saturday afternoon in August, to celebrate her dad Russ Kasmer's birthday, Emily and her father swam and played with these magnificent eight-foot-long animals, hanging on to their fins as the 200-plus-pound mammals -- who may be as smart as we are -- pushed them through the water.
``They felt like rubber hard-boiled eggs,'' reported Emily, who lives in Fort Lauderdale and is a star member of the swim team. ``It was soooo fun!''
Ever since, ``the dolphins are all Emily talks about,'' says her mother Sue. ``She watches the video over and over.'' Emily, who is adopted, has since officially ``adopted'' Santini by sending a donation to contribute to the animal's care.
Too bad my 6-year-old daughter Melanie wasn't as thrilled by her chance to join Emily and the dolphins in the water. Too bad I'd paid $90 (nonrefundable, of course) for her spot, reserved weeks ahead. At least my husband, who had joined us at the last minute, had a good time, taking Melanie's place.
The hope is, of course, that such carefully crafted interactive experiences -- the Florida Keys have long offered more of these than anywhere in the continental United States -- will inspire kids and adults alike to better protect the marine ecosystem. The Dolphin Research Center, for example, is known internationally for its efforts to treat sick or wounded dolphins as well as for its educational and therapeutic programs, including those for disabled adults and children.
``The trend is more hands-on. That makes a more lasting impression,'' explains Cheryl Messinger, president of the Dolphin Connection, located at Hawk's Cay Resort, just two miles from the Dolphin Research Center and the winner of awards for conservation education programs. ``The dolphins are so cute and fuzzy -- they get people's attention. They're the ambassadors for other species.''
Of course, that's when people are ready to get up close and personal with these ``ambassadors.'' I'd been assured when I booked our experience at the Dolphin Research Center that children even younger than Melanie had happily jumped right in the water with the dolphins. Naively, it never occurred to me that our usually fearless first-grader, a strong swimmer, would be less than thrilled to cavort with fast-moving creatures who outweigh her by more than 250 pounds.
``Too scary,'' she said, though I was in the water waiting for her. ``Too much seaweed.'' It didn't help that the two-hour-plus tour of the Dolphin Research Center and marine conservation workshop that preceded the swim had gone on so long.
``You never can tell what kids will do,'' shrugged the patient trainer Barb Losche, who at least persuaded Melanie to shake hands and pet Santini from the edge of the dock. Up the road at Hawk's Cay Resort, Cheryl Messinger, mother of two young children and longtime dolphin trainer who has served as president of the International Marine Animal Trainers Association, had predicted Melanie's reaction.
That's why this summer Messinger began offering a 45-minute Dolphin Detectives program every afternoon for kids aged 5 and older at Hawk's Cay.
``From what we see with school groups, they all want to touch a dolphin, feed one and see one dolphin jump,'' she said. ``But many kids are apprehensive about getting in the water with them.''
Dolphin Detectives gives the kids a glimpse into a dolphin trainer's world -- from helping to prepare the dolphins' food to assisting in their training, getting splashed plenty in the process. The kids, Messinger reports, like that the best.
Melanie certainly did when given a preview of the program. She was flabbergasted when the dolphin dutifully went after the ball she'd thrown in the water.
The junior Dolphin Detectives will help feed the dolphins, getting their fish right out of the ice. They throw them toys. They pet them. ``All of these interactions offer the dolphins positive reinforcement for good behavior,'' Messinger explained. ``It's just as much fun for the dolphins as for the kids.''
To those who argue dolphins shouldn't be kept in captivity, Messinger said, ``we would never have these animals in a situation that would compromise their health and well being. In these programs, they get better health care, food and live longer than animals in the wild.'' At the same time, the animals are taught to cooperate in significant research projects that enable scientists to learn more about marine mammals and their environment. They also do a lot for people, too.
The day we visited Hawk's Cay, 12-year-old Carly Doviak, from Wellington, Fla., was enjoying her third dolphin encounter. Carly's muscular dystrophy keeps her confined in a wheelchair most of the time.
``But when Carly gets in the water with the dolphins, she forgets her weaknesses,'' explained her father Tom. ``She can't do a lot of things other kids do,'' he said. ``This is her special thing. It's a time she can go up against something much bigger than she is and not be afraid.''
As well as swim-with-dolphin programs, most of these sites offer other opportunities for viewing the dolphins and marine life at prices comparable to museum admissions.
For more information about the Dolphin Research Center, call 305-289-1121. It's necessary to book the swim program a month ahead, with reservations taken on the first day of the month for the following month. Children 12 and under must be accompanied by a parent. Walking tours -- including the chance to see the baby dolphins -- are available without reservations for $15. For dolphin-loving teenagers, consider the half-day Dolphin Insight program, in which those 12 and older may work alongside a trainer. The cost is $75.
Call Dolphin Connection at 305-743-7000 ext. 3030 for more information about the Dolphin Detectives program at Hawk's Cay Resort. The program costs $25 for guests at the kid-friendly Hawk's Cay Resort and $30 for others. The once-daily program is extremely popular, so it's wise to book at least a month ahead. An in-water interactive dolphin program is available for adults and older children who are at least 4-feet-6. It costs is $70 for resort guests and $80 for non-resort guests.
Dolphins Plus on Key Largo offers different in-water programs for children aged 7 and older (starting at $100 per person) and for those aged 10 and older ($145 for a half-day) who are accompanied by a parent. Call 305-451-1993. At the Islamorada-based Theater of the Sea, children must be at least 13 to swim with the dolphins, $85 per person, including the $15.25 park admission. Call 305-664-2431.
For dolphin lovers visiting elsewhere, Dolphin Quest offers various in-water programs for adults, teens and children aged 5-12 at the Hilton Waikoloa Village in Hawaii, the Moorea Beachcomber Park Royal Resort in French Polynesia and the newest program at the Southampton Princess Hotel in Bermuda. Prices typically start at $45 for the children's program. For more information, contact your travel agent or Dolphin Quest at 540-687-5958.
Sea World of Florida in Orlando and Sea World of California in San Diego also now offer two-hour Dolphin Interaction Programs in which guests get into the water with the dolphins and their trainers, playing volleyball and getting a dolphin hug. The program costs $125. Children must be at least 13 and 52 inches tall. Those under 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. Call Sea World of California at 619-226-3903 and Sea World of Florida at 407-363-2380.
(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate