When April arrived, it was time to start the swim with mermaids events again. Daphne did not feel like the dolphins were quite ready to start dolphin shows, though. There were several who visited regularly, and they were happy to perform various tricks in return for attention and fish. But they could not be counted on to be present twice a day at the appointed times. They came early or late, and in varying numbers. And sometimes they would stay for a significant time and perform tricks, but other times they might leave after a few minutes. They discussed what to do for several days, until finally Carla made a little presentation to the group. She started by showing them some video she had been creating for the dolphin show. It gave a little history about how the gulf Aquarium’s training methods for non-captive dolphins worked. It showed the dolphins traveling through the channel to the arena and some of the tricks they would perform. Then it came to the part where they expected to shift to the live show.
“Here is the part I wanted you all to see.” Carla said. “If we have a good group of dolphins present and willing to perform for us, we proceed with our normal show. Daphne and I have been planning for several variations to account for which dolphins are present and how cooperative they are. But some days they just don’t choose to come, or they don’t show up at the planned show times. My thought is, we need to have an alternate show for those days. We don’t have dolphins, but we do have mermaids, and with a little audience participation I think we can make a show that people will still be happy to see. The next part of this video is a storyboard that I have made up with a concept show we can build on.”
Carla started the video again. It switched to a kind of power point show with slides explaining the plot to Carla’s alternate show.
When Carla was done, everyone crowded around and congratulated her on her idea. Audra seemed very pleased with it.
“This is great, Carla.” She said. “I think we should flesh it out and start practicing immediately. We can include a disclaimer in the dolphin arena tickets that explains that the dolphins don’t always appear, and that an alternate show will be given if they don’t come. I think this is the solution we have been waiting for. How long do you think it will take to be ready?”
“I was thinking maybe a month or so.”
“That sounds reasonable. Let’s plan to have the grand opening of the dolphin arena on the first full weekend in May – I think May 5th is the first Friday. Is everyone in agreement?”
Daphne agreed, followed by the rest of the group. They all started practicing the show in whatever free time they had from feeding the fish or doing the swim with mermaids event. Carla worked with a video production company on the video portion of the show, and obtained permission to use the familiar “Little Mermaid” music from Disney. Audra even practiced with them when she could, saying that she wanted to be ready as a backup in case someone was sick or hurt. The addition of the show made them all very busy, and there was not as much time to do their non-mermaid work as before. Luckily Audra had non-mermaid employees who could help take up the slack.
When May 5 came around, they all felt excited for the first dolphin show. As 11:00 AM rolled around, there were four of the trained dolphins present in the arena pool. Kari Davis the news reporter was there with her camera, and Audra was also present, sitting on the “hill” in the central platform. She introduced Daphne and Carla, thanked the audience for coming, and handed the microphone off to Daphne. Allen and Maria watched the show hidden inside the tube from the mermaid swim pool. The show was a great success, although one of the dolphins seemed disturbed by the noisy cheering of the crowd and left after a few tricks. When the show was done and the audience had filed out of the arena, Kari Davis called across to Audra and asked if she could answer a few questions. Audra called back and said that Daphne would be happy to answer them for her. So Daphne rode the seat out over the water and dove in. She swam to the edge of the pool and supported herself on the side of the pool with her elbows while she spoke to the reporter. As she was speaking, the seat picked up Audra off of the hill and lowered her into the water. She dove to the bottom and slipped out down the connecting tube, leaving Daphne and Carla to handle the reporter’s questions.
“This is Kari Davis, here with Daphne Rogers, dolphin trainer at the Gulf Aquarium.” Said the reporter, starting her spiel. “Daphne, that was a fantastic show we just saw. How do you get wild dolphins to do those tricks?”
“Well, anyone who trains animals will tell you that they do it for love and approval as much as for the food we give them. Dolphins are very intelligent, so it is even more that way with them. We start out by giving them food, but as they become more comfortable, we become like a part of their group.”
“That’s amazing. How long have you been working with this group of dolphins?”
“About four or five months. We are really only just starting with these dolphins. Come back in a year and I think you’ll see some really spectacular stuff!”
“And the dolphins are free to come and go?”
“Yes. We didn’t want captive dolphins. They are free to come or leave as they please.”
“How do you make sure they are here in time for the show?”
“Well, after a while they learn what time we want them here. We always feed them and work with them at the same times each day.”
“Do they always show up?”
As they were speaking, Blacktip, one of the dolphins who had just performed, swam up behind Daphne and nudged her with his beak.
“Excuse me for just a moment.” Daphne said. “Blacktip wants to play.”
She turned around and rubbed the dolphin on each side of his head. He bobbed his head back and forth and then leaped out of the water, splashing Kari and her cameraman.
“Silly thing.” Said Daphne, and then she dove into the water and followed Blacktip, using powerful kicks with her tail to keep up with the fleet dolphin. They made a quick circuit of the pool and then both jumped out of the water together, landing with a huge splash. The dolphin started to swim around again, but Daphne swam back to the wall of the pool and the waiting reporter.
“Sorry about that.” She said. “He can be real pushy when he wants to play with you.”
Kari brushed her damp hair out of her face. “He seems quite playful.”
“Yes, he is one of the younger dolphins, and one of the ones who most seems to like coming here and performing for us.”
“Back to my question, if we could. Do the dolphins always show up at the right time?”
“No, they don’t. They have their own lives to live and sometimes they don’t come on time or maybe even at all.”
“So what happens if someone buys a ticket for a show and the dolphins don’t come?”
“If you remember, it says on your ticket that we will have an alternative if the dolphins aren’t here.”
“I do remember. What’s the alternative?”
“I think I’ll leave that as a surprise. Keep coming back and perhaps you’ll get a chance to find out.”
The first chance to try the alternative show happened two days later. A strong storm system had just moved through the area, so perhaps the dolphins were seeking shelter or taking advantage of some increased food in the bay. When no dolphins had shown up by 10 minutes before show time, Daphne called over to the mermaid quarters on the intercom and said they would need mermaids for the alternate show. Maria started getting ready, along with Allen and Katherine. Technically, Allen and Katherine had the day off, but they were just hanging around the rec room that day so they were happy to help out. They all grabbed their props and costumes and swam out to the dolphin arena. Rather than take the slide into the mermaid swim pool, they went through the lock and swam through the deep water to the dolphin arena entrance tube. Most of the customers in the mermaid swim experience didn’t even notice their passing.
They waited in the tunnel entrance for the appropriate point in the show. They could see a young girl being escorted from the audience and across a temporary bridge to the central island by one of the aquarium workers. He announced her name – Marcia – and then the show began. Daphne and Carla were hiding under the water at the far side of the island until the time came for them to show up. After a few minutes, they heard the music change, and Maria, Katherine, Daphne and Carla all swam out into the arena. They did some quick leaps out of the water, splashing some of the patrons in the first few rows when they landed. Then they did a synchronized swimming routine, staying under the water but near the surface so that the customers can see from above and through the transparent sides of the pool. At the end, they all surfaced right at the edge of the central island. They saw the girl there and acted surprised, then dove back under the water and swam out of sight into the entrance tube. Then the aquarium worker asked the little girl if she wished she could be a mermaid. While he was talking, Allen swam quietly under the water across to the island. He had on a shiny crown and was carrying a brightly painted trident. When the girl said she did wish she was a mermaid, he burst from the water and landed sitting on the edge of the island. (It had taken a lot of practice to get that move right.)
“Beautiful Marcia. I, King Triton, have heard your wish and it shall be granted!” Allen spoke. A hidden directional microphone picked up his voice and amplified it, and then hidden nozzles sprayed a curtain of water all around the central island. Allen slipped off into the water while the aquarium employee escorted the girl into the hidden chamber in the hill and helped her slip into a mermaid costume. The video screens showed an animated transformation sequence. When Marcia was dressed in her costume, the helper brought her back out onto the island, carrying her in her arms. The water spray stopped and all the mermaids swam back into the arena, approaching the island and inviting the girl to join them in the water. After receiving a hesitant nod, the aquarium employee lowered her down between Maria and Carla, who took her hands and swam with her around the pool, making sure to keep her head out of the water. Then they set her on Allen’s back, and he stayed still on the surface as the other mermaids swam around him, leaping out of the water and splashing the girl as they landed. She squealed with delight and surprise. Finally, Allen took her back to the island and the aquarium helper lifted her off of his back. The music quieted and Daphne was lifted out of the water by the swing so that she could thank the audience and dismiss them.
An aquarium staff person replaced the bridge and escorted the girl’s parents across to their daughter. She came back out of the changing room with her dry clothes on and a big smile because she was carrying a bag with the mermaid costume in it—her prize for participating in the show. Once the girl and her parents had left, the mermaids all gathered around and discussed the show. They were pleased with how it had worked out, and it seemed like the customers were happy. As the next few weeks progressed, they had the opportunity to repeat the show every few days. Sometimes there would even be dolphins present for part of the show, but they would come in late or not be interested in performing that day. The mermaids got good at improvising small changes in the program to account for these less compliant dolphins, and the customers came in droves to see the show, which became the aquarium’s most popular event. Audra and her partner made a lot of money.