On Saturday at 10 a.m., SeaWorld San Antonio will become the only place in Texas where guests can pay to swim with dolphins.
With the grand opening of Discovery Point, SeaWorld’s new addition to the park, guests over the age of 6 can observe bottlenose dolphins from a new underwater viewing area or pay between $125 and $155 to reserve a spot to swim with them. SeaWorld will continue to operate its interactive Beluga Whale and Sea Lion program.
“Discovery Point underscores our mission of experiences that matter. Our guests will see the wonder and majesty of dolphins and other marine animals, connecting with them in new ways to create a deeper understanding of the importance of protecting these amazing animals and their ocean habitat,” stated Chris Bellows, SeaWorld San Antonio vice president of Zoological Operations during a media preview of the exhibit on Friday. “The Dolphin Lagoon will allow guests to watch dolphins at play from both above and below the surface, providing an up-close look at how dolphins learn and explore their environment.”
Discovery Point also represents a paradigm shift for SeaWorld, a change that comes on the heels of growing concerns in local and international communities about how animals are treated in zoos. The company’s bottom line has been affected by criticism from animal rights activists and the release of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which inspired boycotts.
In March SeaWorld’s corporate office announced that it will end orca breeding programs and begin phasing out the park’s theatrical shows.
The 600,000-gallon pool referred to as Dolphin Lagoon is twice the size of SeaWorld’s previous dolphin habitat. It houses 21 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins — 15 females and six males ranging from 1 to 43 years old.
Each interactive session starts with a classroom video presentation, then moves to the locker rooms so participants can change into provided wetsuits and ends with about 30 minutes in the 79-degree pool petting, kissing and riding on the back of a dolphin.
A majority of the 21 dolphins were born at SeaWorld, but four ended up at SeaWorld after being rescued by the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network and identified as “non-releasable” by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
One of those rescued dolphins is Gilly, who was saved 20 years ago after getting caught in a gill net as a newborn. Today, 21-year-old Gilly is the oldest dolphin to interact with guests.
Mattie, another dolphin who will interact with guests, was found washed ashore on an oyster bed in Matagorda Bay about 20 years ago. Today, she is the mother of two calves and can be identified by the scarring on her face.
All SeaWorld guests can visit the underwater viewing area to watch dolphins like Gilly and Mattie interact with one another, trainers and guests through floor-to-ceiling windows that peek into their pool.
The underground viewing area connects to the newly renovated Explorer’s Reef 750,000-gallon aquarium, home to the park’s shark population. The five species of shark, which range in age from 1 to 27-years-old, are accompanied by more than 350 species of fish, invertebrates and amphibians.
This story was originally published on May 20.