Looking to Dolphins for Human Therapy

Over the last three decades, dolphin-assisted therapy has been used to help humans suffering from autism, the effects of Agent Orange, and even Alzheimer's disease, among others. (Photo: Jude Wolpert)

For a few hours, Golden, Colorado, native Kameron Wolpert was like any other nine-year-old girl. She giggled when the dolphin nudged her chest with its snout, and at the dolphin trainer's request, she gripped the tiny mackerel and fed it to Nuba. In return, the "fish" massaged her knees and legs, encouraging her to leave the fetal position and stretch out her slender white legs.

These exercises were an aberration for Kammie, who suffers from trisomy 18 (T-18), a terminal illness that causes severe handicaps such that the girl is unable to speak and nearly unable to use her limbs and muscles. Ninety percent of children with T-18 die before they reach one year old. When Jude and Bill Wolpert decided to carry through with Kammie's birth, they also committed to years of time-consuming and costly therapy sessions with methods ranging from doctors to animals: horses, dogs … and dolphins, which many scientists now consider the smartest mammals alive.

The Wolpert family spent a week in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico, in March with the Boulder-based dolphin therapy program Living from the Heart (, which rents pool space and dolphin time from the resort outfit Vallarta Adventures—one of hundreds of dolphin therapy locations in tropical climates around the world. In the largest pool at Vallarta Adventures, college kids on spring break cheered and clapped as dolphins performed tricks and jumps for them. And in a small pool next to the therapy sessions, which was roped off and covered by nylon curtains, National Geographic filmed a live human water birth assisted by dolphins, who would escort the newborn back to the waterline.

The Wolperts paid $700 for five 45-minute sessions with Nuba, a dolphin trainer and an assistant, and Kammie's results were remarkable. In addition to using her otherwise dormant limbs, the handicapped girl's attention span increased during the week, and though her mouth will never form words, Nuba helped her laugh with ease. Of course, Kammie wasn't the only one affected by the dolphin's presence. After taking turns holding Kammie and sharing the pool with Nuba, both Jude and Bill were overcome by extreme relaxation and an inner peace. They slept long and hard during the night in their beachside hotel on the Pacific.

Nuba the dolphin helped Kammie laugh with ease. (Photo: Jude Wolpert)

Could it be the poolside relaxation, the lapping ocean waves, and the timeout from their lives back in wintry Colorado that put the Wolperts in a blissful state and helped Kammie perform physical feats otherwise impossible for her? Doubtful, more and more medical professionals are admitting. More than three decades of research and experience shows that dolphins use their advanced echolocation sonar to sense what physical or communicative skills, or emotions, are scrambled in one's brain, and by rubbing up against the person or sticking their nose up to one's solar plexus, the most intelligent mammals in the water can help us—at least in the short term—in a manner far superior to other forms of physical or animal-assisted therapy. Dolphins may never make Kammie walk or talk, but they can significantly improve her quality of life.

Dr. Betsy Smith, an educational anthropologist at Florida International University, is considered the founder of modern-day dolphin-assisted therapy. In 1971, while researching interactions between dolphins and humans, Smith let her mentally retarded brother wade into the water with two adolescent and rough dolphins, who immediately became gentle, as if they sensed they could help the boy. Since then organizations such as the Human/Dolphin Foundation and AquaThought have surfaced, devoted to studying how dolphins can help people. Over the last three decades the same echolocation sonar that dolphins in the wild use to locate a shark half a mile away, and determine whether its stomach is full or empty, has been used to help humans suffering from autism, the effects of Agent Orange, and even Alzheimer's.

On the third day of observing Kammie's interaction with Nuba, I entered the pool and experienced the powerful effects of her echolocation myself. The dolphin turned upside down and, with the help of the trainer's steady arms, I lay on her belly just below the water level for a good five minutes. I listened to the sonar Nuba was emitting into my brain and my body—what sounded up close like a door creaking, and from further away like grains or pebbles settling back onto a riverbed after being stirred up. Afterward Nuba stuck her snout up to my solar plexus, and within seconds a deep calm overcame me. Ten minutes later, and for the rest of the day, my body felt as relaxed as if I'd been sitting in a sweat lodge, or perhaps performing Bikram Yoga, for 12 hours straight.

Before leaving the pool that day the trainer's assistant, Brianna, who is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area and has devoted her life to dolphin therapy ever since her autistic brother Kyle received therapy here two years ago, placed her forehead up against Nuba's forehead, looked into the dolphin's eyes, and cried. They meditated together for about five minutes, and Brianna whispered a few words to her. When I asked Brianna what compelled her to do this, she told me that a friend of hers in California had been murdered the week before, and she just needed "some healing time" with Nuba.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Jacob R. Wheeler.