Ryo Nakasone and Azusa Watanabe are dolphin trainers at Okinawa’s Expo Park.
Ryo Nakasone grew up in Motobu not far from the aquarium where he now works. While at high school in Naha he was a champion boxer and was scouted by Nihon University where he fought in the light-fly weight class while a student. After graduation, he returned to his hometown and began working at Expo Park. Now 29, he has been a dolphin trainer for five years.
Azusa Watanabe majored in fisheries studies at Nagasaki University. She moved to Okinawa four months ago, and at age 23, is the aquarium’s newest dolphin trainer.
What types of dolphin live at Expo Park?
“There are 82 species of dolphin in the world, and we have five species living here at Expo. They are the Pacific white-sided dolphin, Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, rough-toothed Dolphin, bottlenose dolphin and false killer whale.”
I heard a rumor that killer whales are actually a type of dolphin?
“It is true; they are part of the same biological family Delphinidae. They’re also the biggest family member, growing to lengths of up to 9.6 meters.”
Dolphins are marine mammals, which means they have lungs to breathe air, warm blood, live young, produce milk, and have hair. But where is the hair on a dolphin?
“Although adult dolphins don’t have hair, if you look at a very young dolphin, they have fine whiskers around their upper jaw, kind of like a little mustache.”
How much fish do they dolphins eat?
“Our dolphins eat between nine and twenty five kilograms of fish everyday. The variety of fish changes, but it’s mainly a mixture of capelin, squid, mackerel, flying fish and Japanese surf smelt.”
What are the key jobs of a dolphin trainer?
“Our primary concern is the health and happiness of the dolphins. We check each day to ensure individuals have no medical problems, prepare their food, and make sure their pools are clean. We’re also involved with the training of the dolphins and running the daily shows, which keeps them from getting bored.”
Are dolphin trainers and marine biologists the same thing?
“Not at all. Our job is solely about the welfare of these dolphins. Marine biologists, on the other hand, conduct research into every aspect of the oceans, from plankton to whales.”
Can you tell me about the rehabilitation of Fuji-chan?
“Fuji is a female bottlenose dolphin who’s around 36 years old. In 2002, she had problems with an infection and lack of blood flow to her tail flukes. 75% of the flukes died and had to be removed. Without an intact tail, Fuji-chan was unable to swim or jump as well as she had done before. We started a project to create artificial tail flukes for her. We have tried many different designs; our most recent is a combination of rubber and a reinforcing silicone plate that can be bolted in place. Fuji-chan is now slimmer and healthier and can even jump as much as three meters out of the water.”
Is being a dolphin trainer as good as everyone imagines it to be?
“It’s a dream job. Quite simply…fantastic.”
(Interview first published in Okinawa Living Magazine August 2006)