• Image about Therapist

Photo:   Underwater adventures at the Royal Sea Aquarium Resort

By 2001, construction began on a dolphin resort. Local mines were quarried, and humongous boulders were trucked over to the area. They were strategically placed along a sandbar, forming an aesthetically pleasing break-wall that serves the practical purpose of protecting the sea aquarium and its lagoons. When the giant estuary was completed, four tidal pools were constructed, each containing 40,000 cubic meters of seawater. That seawater flows unobstructed through the break-walls, and the tide naturally circulates and filters the pools.

A year later, right about the time a world-renowned trainer named George Kieffer arrived on the island from the Bahamas, Dutch leased five bottle-nose dolphins from Honduras. Then he purchased four more. Over time, another six were born in captivity. Kieffer and staff trained the dolphins, and Copan, Tela, GiGi and the other bottle-nose mammals are the centerpieces of the Curaçao Sea Aquarium, where visitors watch Sea World–esque shows and also have the opportunity to swim with the dolphins.

“My goal is to educate before I entertain,” Dutch says. “These aren’t the dolphins you see in the movies. This isn’t Flipper. These are brilliant animals, very social, very intuitive and inquisitive, and very capable of helping and healing.”

Dutch doesn’t speak in jest. He means every word he says. About everything. When he evokes the image of the dolphin as a helper and a healer — similar to the medical and psychological roles horses have assumed in the United States — he follows through to a T. In summertime 2002, the Curaçao Dolphin Academy became a reality. Two years later, the Curaçao Dolphin Therapy & Research Center grew from its predecessor. Dutch recruited the best therapists from the Netherlands and Germany and brought them to Curaçao. Once in-country, he had them trained to work with the dolphins, rather than hiring dolphin trainers to work with children and other special-needs patients. His employees embody the very best qualities a convalescent would want in a clinical practitioner, and the very best qualities an activist would want in an animal trainer. People such as head trainer Esther Kooijman from northern Holland. “I love humans, and I love animals,” she says frankly. “I’m glad that animal-rights groups exist. They have very high standards for the care of the dolphins, which mirror our own exceptionally high standards.”

And it’s this gold standard, conceived by Dutch and faithfully administered to his staff, which permeates the break-walls and resort towers at Royal and permits dreams to become realities. It’s this staff that took a pilot whale, hit by a boat, racked by infection and swimming off to its dying place, and rehabbed it back to life. In so doing, the whale became another object lesson for tourists about the life aquatic.

When the 65-year-old former spearfishing champion announced to his staff that he wanted to build a passenger submarine for resort guests, nobody rolled his or her eyes. Rather, everyone got to work.

After two years and $2 million, the world’s largest private submarine certified for a 1,000-foot dive arrived at its new home in a brand-new sub station. Dutch, true to his word, built a submarine. The five-man sub with the floor-to-ceiling front window takes tourists to the depths of the ocean. “Nobody does the deep-water dives,” he says. “This is only the beginning. With this sub, permanently stationed in the Caribbean, it’s only a matter of time before a university comes calling to do some real consequential work. Maybe even a university in the United States.”

Stijn recourt and head trainer, Esther, acclimate to the temperate seawater. At Esther’s request, Stijn gently taps the surface. In the distance, a school of dolphins can be seen swimming around the lagoon. They all approach Stijn when he taps, and then they have what seems like an informal meeting underwater. At last, GiGi breaks from the group and swims right underneath Stijn’s hand. He smiles and breathes steadily as he strokes her rubbery dorsal fin. GiGi raises her head from the water and looks Stijn directly in the eye. It’s a unique, little-known characteristic of dolphins: They always look you directly in the eye. Whether Stijn knows this or not, he is acutely aware that GiGi picked him; GiGi wanted to be his friend, perhaps more than he wanted to be hers.

Mariëtte and Dirk-Jan sip their coffees from atop a park bench. They watch Stijn display a more visceral emotion after 12 minutes with GiGi than after 12 months back home in the Netherlands. Their other son, Pim, frolics to and fro, finally taking his place on the bench beside his parents as he gazes thoughtfully over the azure Caribbean Sea. This moment here is the essence of island therapy, figuratively and literally.

ADAM PITLUK is the editor of American Way. His research for this story made him a believer in dolphin therapy.

Retrace Our Steps in Curaçao

  • Image about Therapist
Photo: Chef Augusto Ceccotti’s Augusto’s Restaurant; 

EDITOR’S PICK: Augusto’s Restaurant
(located at the Royal Sea Aquarium Resort)
Italian-born chef Augusto Ceccotti provides the land-and-sea creations unparalleled on the island.
Willemstad, Curaçao, N.A.
Telephone: 011 (+5999) 465-6699

Royal Resorts Curaçao
The Royal Sea Aquarium Resort
Bapor Kibra z/n. Curaçao, N.A.
Telephone: 011 (+5999) 465-6699
For special-needs accommodations, visit Dolphin Suites Curaçao, www.dolphinsuitescuracao.com

Curaçao Dolphin Therapy & Research Center
Bapor Kibra z/n. Curaçao, N.A.
Telephone: 011 (+5999) 461-9886

Hyatt Regency Curaçao Golf Resort,
Spa and Marina

Santa Barbara Plantation, Porta Blancu, Nieuwpoort,
Curaçao, N.A.
Telephone: 011 (+5999) 840-1234