Sun, 05 Sep 1999

Children flock to see dolphins perform at Ancol park

By Stevie Emilia

JAKARTA (JP): Ucok and Bento dance to the strong beat of house music. Surrounding the dancers are children who clap their hands or stand on their seats, also dancing on their own. Others, who are courageous enough, try to get closer.

Ucok and Bento are not professional dancers showing off their skills on the dance floor. They are two trained male dolphins who regularly perform at Gelanggang Samudra Ancol, one of Ancol Dreamland recreational park's main attractions in North Jakarta.

The dolphins 30-minute show is always packed with children who come with parents, especially during holidays and weekends. With a Rp 12,000 entrance ticket, they can enjoy the performance and watch other animal shows starring bears and sea lions.

Wati, a housewife from Tangerang, West Java, took her four children, including her six-month-old baby girl, to watch the show on Saturday two weeks ago.

"My children love the dolphins and keep asking me and my husband to bring them back here ... It's fine with me since I think it has an educational aspect, too. It will make them love animals," she told The Jakarta Post after the show.

The visit was her fourth this year.

"There's not much choice for parents to take their children to in the city. It's simply a choice between Ancol (the park) or a shopping mall. Going too often to the mall does no good for my children. It will only make me spend too much on nothing," Wati said.

Her children did have fun. The oldest, nine-year-old Rina, refused to sit next to her mother and preferred standing near the fence separating the pool and audience. Once in a while, when the dolphins were passing close to her, she tried to reach them with her hands, but to no avail.

Ucok and Bento, which were captured in the Java Sea north of Pekalongan in Central Java, managed to mesmerize the audience with their acrobatic show.

Besides dancing, the pair greeted the audience by flapping their slim fins on the pool's surface, splashing eager children nearby.

They also jumped through a burning hoop of fire, leaped to receive fish held by one of the two trainers standing high in the center of the pool and made watching children laugh or scream when they pushed a plastic boat with a child passenger around the pool.

Two other dolphins, Topan and Boncel, are no less appealing in their performance.

Apart from dancing or playing with a ball which they throw to a surprised audience, the pair can also do a calculation like 8 + 5 and 3 x 4. Since they cannot utter a single word, they answer by honking a nearby chime the exact number of times.

They also know how to make money by kissing children for a photo session, which costs Rp 15,000 a shot.

"You can't simply say 'no' to your son at a moment like that, you know. Believe me, it's hard to control him when he sees what other kids are doing," said Andri, trying to firmly hold his five-year-old boy Putra, who later managed to get free from his father to mix with the crowd on stage for the "kissing pose".

Gelanggang Samudra has 12 dolphins, of which two are currently on tour abroad. They have been part of the park's collection for three to five years. And there are a pair of young dolphins, Putra and Putri, which were born at Gelanggang Samudra and are ready to perform soon.

Trainer Paimin, whose stage name in the show is Kushermawan, said the dolphins were not trained the minute they were captured from the sea.

Instead, they were put in the park's quarantine to learn about, among other things, behavior and eating habits. After the park's doctor said it was okay, the dolphins were then trained for the show.

He said that it was not really difficult to train dolphins compared to other sea creatures, such as sea lions, which often bite the trainer. Paimin, who received two years of sea animal training from foreign experts especially hired by the park, also trains the park's six performing sea lions.

Six trainers are involved in preparing the two-meter-long dolphins, which weigh around 90 kilograms each, for the show.

"The key in training dolphins is patience and using the same commands each time you want to do a particular trick," Paimin shared his training secret to the Post.

For instance, he said, the trainer should show a uniform hand signal to get the dolphins to jump through burning hoops of fire or to ask it to dance.

"If you use a different signal for the same trick, it might get them confused," said 42-year-old Paimin, who has been a trainer at the park since 1974.

How long does it take to train dolphins?

Paimin said dolphins are just like people; there are clever ones and slow ones.

"So it depends on the dolphin. There are dolphins that can master a trick in just six months, but there are also those who do the same trick after a year of training."

He said the most difficult and time consuming trick for the dolphins was calculating.

"It might take them over a year to master the (calculating) skill ... and not all dolphins can be trained to do so," said Kushermawan, who loved his job for the satisfaction he gets whenever a trained dolphin finally masters a trick.

Prior to the show, the trainers should not feed the dolphins too much, or it will make them lazy and reluctant to obey the commands, he added. Each of the dolphins consume nine kilograms of fish every day.

But training animals is difficult and needs a certain approach.

Paimin, who spends most of his time at the park, said that each trainer should get really close with the animals being trained.

"We have to love the animals we train, both mentally and physically. We should have a close attachment to them and should never feel forced to do so just for the sake of earning money. We should be able to understand them and learn their character," he said.

Citing an example, he said that trainers should be able to know simply by looking at the dolphins' movements if they are well or sick. Dolphins can also recognize their trainers, although not all of them can see, like Ucok and all the other sea lions which are blind due to tropical weather, said Paimin.

"So with animals, it's just like loving your own children. We can't do it halfway ... or they sense it."