Just off the shores of Shell Island in Panama City, Florida, pods of wild dolphins roam freely. These dolphins aren’t trained, but they do allow humans to get a close-up look as they swim by.
Water Planet is the oldest dolphin tour company in Panama City. Owner Denis Richard has been taking groups of people out to see dolphins for over 25 years. His mission isn’t just to give tours, but to educate the public on dolphins and protecting their environment.
“Clean water means clean food for dolphins and clean food for us. We need to take better care of our environment,” Richard said.
Richard takes participants out near Shell Island and when a pod is sighted, participants dive into the water with a snorkel and mask to observe. Rules and regulations prohibit humans from feeding or touching the dolphins, but you are free to swim up close.
“Usually people want to touch or swim with dolphins, but we can’t do that because the dolphins are untrained. We respect their space,” Richard said.
Our 30A summer interns took a ride along with Water Planet in Panama City, Florida and swam alongside pods of wild dolphins. They also learned about the many dolphin therapy programs for special needs children offered by the tour company.
Posted by 30A on Monday, 12 August 2019
An important program offered by Water Planet is dolphin therapy, offered to families with special needs children. Dolphin therapy has been found to aid in reducing stress, alleviating depression, stimulating the production of endorphins and hormones, enhancing recovery, and reducing pain. Richard added these programs after working with an autistic child in 1997.
“That little girl improved so much after swimming with dolphins that I knew therapy would become part of Water Planet’s programs.”
Water Planet offers different therapy programs for families depending on their individual needs. Their newest Grief Support program focuses on families impacted by loss.
Natalie Larter came all the way from Sydney, Australia to work for Water Planet in 2013. Today, she is the intern coordinator and runs the therapy programs. “Being eye to eye with a wild dolphin is something unparalleled to anything else you’ll ever experience,” Larter said.
Her passion for children, animals and their intrinsic connection has taken her all over the world to help special needs children.
The therapy programs incorporate morning dolphin diving sessions with educational afternoon sessions to assist the family with their goals with intervention based curriculum. “These trips are beautiful because they provide an opportunity for families with special needs kids an opportunity to go on a vacation where they have that physical and social support,” Larter said.
Working with dolphins every day sounds like a dream, but for Larter, the children and families she interacts with are her favorite part. “I just get that sense of love and connection that they build here. The smiles at the end and the growth you can see for that family is unbelievable,” Later said.
SARAH O’BEIRNE was previously a summer intern with 30A. She is majoring in journalism at the University of Illinois.