Marine Park Matriarch: Sandy the dolphin ‘an excellent mother’

Tony Simmons / Online Editor

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Sandy is a single mother, separated from the father of her child. Perhaps not surprisingly, theirs was an arranged marriage.

A leader among her peers, Sandy is variously described as likable, stubborn, playful, domineering and nice. If she was on the Gulf World payroll, Sandy would be one of the longest-serving employees.

“She’s one of everybody’s favorites here,” said marine park co-owner Ron Hardy. “She’s been here a long time. She’s got an outstanding personality — very  loveable.”

Sandy is energetic, according to trainer Secret Holmes-Douglas, who works with her at the park. And Sandy seems to enjoy pushing the limits, Holmes-Douglas said.

“Sandy is Sandy,” Holmes-Douglas said. “She likes testing new trainers to see what she can get away with. It depends on her mood. Just like people, she has  good days and bad days.”

Sandy is an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. She came to the park in the late 1980s, and her age is estimated be in the late 20s. (Bottlenose dolphins can live up to 40 years.) She’s a mom four times over. On a recent sunny morning,  she was circling a tank with her youngest calf Jet, who was born Aug. 31,  2010.

“She’s an excellent mother,” Holmes-Douglas said.

Jet is a product of Sandy’s fleeting romance with Sebastian, a male on loan from Sea World in Orlando. Marine parks have a breeder program that keeps the bloodlines strong, Hardy said.

Recently, Sandy taught Jet to make ventral (upside down) fluke slaps. According to materials provided by the park, slapping different parts of their bodies on the surface of the water is an important way dolphins communicate information to each other.

At 9 feet long, Sandy weighs about 500 pounds now, which is trim for her. She weighed 650-670 while she was pregnant. She eats about 30 pounds of capelin,  herring and squid each day, which is more than average — but then, she’s still nursing Jet. She’s sure to slim down again when she’s performing regularly.

“Hopefully we’ll soon have her back doing shows,” Holmes-Douglas said. “She ’s one of our most popular performers, but she’s not currently in shows. We use her  for encounters.”

Gulf World allows customers to swim with certain of the dolphins — hold a  dorsal fin for a spin around the habitat, get a kiss or a handshake. The encounter includes lessons in dolphin conservation.

“She’s really nice,” said Brooke Lugar, 25, an Ohio visitor who swam with  Sandy recently. “She took us for rides. Mine was probably pretty fast — I was  scared.”

Lugar said Sandy was intimidating initially.

“She’s very big, and I was nervous,” Lugar said. “You get comfortable as you see how they are with you.”