In the Jewish tradition, dolphins are described with mythical qualities. In the Talmud (Bekhorot 1:5), we are told that dolphins “are fruitful and multiply like human beings.” Some manuscripts, however, say that dolphins “are fruitful and multiply with human beings”! Rashi, in discussing these passages, considers dolphins to be half human and half fish, using the old French word, syrene (mermaid).
My favorite place to visit in Israel is the Dolphin Reef in Eilat. Located on a secluded beach on the shores of the Red Sea, and surrounded by endless desert, red mountains, and the deep blue water, the Dolphin Reef is an ecological site where visitors have the opportunity to either observe the dolphins from floating piers or encounter the dolphins directly during guided swims or dives.
At the Dolphin Reef, the dolphins live in their natural environment, the sea, with minimal intervention in their lifestyle. They can choose to approach snorkelers or divers based upon their sense of curiosity, play, and desire for spontaneous interaction, or they can choose to continue their daily routine with the other dolphins. Periodically, the gates to the sea are opened and the dolphins are able to leave the site. However, many of the dolphins elect to remain at the Dolphin Reef or leave for a short while and then eventually return.
Dolphin therapy is offered at the Dolphin Reef for children ages six to 16 with autism, Down syndrome, dyslexia, behavioral problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, cancer, or a history of abuse. During dolphin therapy, a child interacts with the dolphins, playing with or petting them. Because the dolphin does not desire anything beyond the encounter with a human, the child feels unconditional love. Interacting with the dolphins gives the child a strong sense of belonging and acceptance and feelings of warmth, strength, serenity, and joy.
In addition, assisting the trainers in caring for the dolphins helps the children by increasing self-esteem and confidence, even attentiveness and ability to focus on tasks, while also improving their ability to deal with frustration. For many children, dolphin therapy is the beginning of a road to recovery.
A few years ago, a documentary about the Dolphin Reef was shown at the Washington Jewish Film Festival. It is called “Dolphin Boy” and was produced and directed by Dani Menkin and Yonatan Nir. The movie is about Morad, a teenager from an Arab village in the north of Israel. He was popular, loved by his family, an athlete, and a good student. One night, he is beaten cruelly by his classmates, who mistakenly accuse him of having an affair with their engaged cousin. The attack leaves him mute and unresponsive. He is plagued by nightmares and sudden rages. He rejects any human interaction and dissociates himself from the past.
When months of conventional treatment yield little improvement, the doctor suggests dolphin therapy. Morad’s father takes him to the Red Sea and, through his interactions with the dolphins, Morad is gradually able to reclaim his personality and recall his past. Morad remains at the Dolphin Reef for many years, becoming an excellent diver and an instructor. Eventually he is able to return to his village and reunite with his family.
“Dolphin Boy” continues to be my favorite movie. The story is riveting and the filming is exquisite. One of the most poignant parts of the movie concerns Morad’s father, who accompanies his son to Eilat and makes great sacrifices in order to see his son healthy again. The movie is mostly about the extraordinary connection between Morad and the dolphins, but it is also about the inexorable bond between a father and his son.
Since seeing “Dolphin Boy,” I have gone scuba diving at the Dolphin Reef three times. During my interactions with the dolphins, I was astonished by their beauty and friendliness. I also came away with feelings of warmth, strength, serenity, and joy, the very same emotions that are elicited through dolphin therapy. While I was at the Dolphin Reef, I spoke with some of the instructors and they assured me that Morad is doing well, has gotten married, and is studying marine biology.
I do believe that there is something to that mythical quality about dolphins.
By Paul J. Blank