Like other non-essential businesses in the Virgin Islands, Coral World Ocean Park closed for the second time on Aug. 19. General Manager Trudie Prior said, “Closing to the public on March 25, reopening on May 25 and then closing again on Aug. 19 created special challenges for Coral World. But there was a thin silver lining to the situation. Our staff had the opportunity to fine-tune existing programs and create new ones.”
Coral World’s dolphin welfare specialists often heard from guests during existing interactive dolphin programs that they would really like to see the dolphins swimming underwater. Coral World Curator Lee Kellar said, “The dolphin and dive teams heard the call and went to work. Over the course of six months, they developed a new program – Dolphin TREK – that combines two of our very special activities: helmet diving and swimming with dolphins.”
There were a number of logistical hurdles. The team had to figure out how to lower an 80-pound helmet onto each guest’s shoulders, secure the air source to the helmet, and safely get the guest to stand on the seafloor from a dock that sits four feet above the waterline. Kellar said, “Our team came up with a creative solution – a crane that allows for lowering and raising the helmets onto guests’ shoulders safely and comfortably while they stand on the dive ladder. Participants then step down from the ladder onto the seafloor.”
To stabilize themselves once underwater, participants will hold onto a lightweight removable rope that is stretched tight across the habitat using a winch. Michelle Vincent, Coral World dive operations manager, said, “We had to acclimate the dolphins to the helmets by having staff in helmets walk around the habitat as the dolphins engaged in their usual exploration. The dolphins were very curious and acclimated quickly to this new strange-looking object in their environment.”
Prior said, “The effort paid off, and now we are ready to welcome the public to engage in this amazing experience. Using Sea TREK helmet diving technology, participants will walk along the ocean floor to observe dolphins swimming in and exploring their natural habitat.”
Some dolphins will show their curiosity by swimming up close while others may display their personalities from a distance. Assistant Curator of Marine Mammals and Birds Kristine Tartaglio said, “You’ll see the underwater agility of the dolphins – how they use their flippers for steering, balancing and stopping and how their powerful muscles move their tails up and down for forward motion – this program offers a very different experience than observing them at the surface.”
The park is now open to visitors from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Friday to Monday. For more information on Dolphin TREK, contact the reservation desk at 340-775-1555 ext. 233.