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A Day in the Life: Claire Ma

By David Challenger
CNN
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CNN's "Day in the Life" special examines people earning a living doing what many others dream of doing.

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Under a rare clear Hong Kong sky, 3,000 people sit in high humidity in an open-air theater perched atop of the South China Sea.

In front of them, the surface of a massive saltwater pool shimmers like a perfect giant pane of glass.

Suddenly, the placid waters are transformed into a torrent of waves as four dolphins dart across the pool.

Oohs and ahs gush from the excited crowd as the marine mammals break the surface with elaborate twists and jumps.

Calm is suddenly restored when the dolphins swim across and await obediently for instructions as their intelligent eyes fall on dolphin trainer, Claire Ma.

Ocean Park, a massive 870,000-square meter sea life and animal-theme park, opened on the southern side of Hong Kong Island in 1977.

Aside from where the dolphin action takes place at Ocean Theater, the not-for-profit organization -- which aims to provide elements of education, entertainment and conservation -- includes an atoll reef facility, shark aquarium, sea lions and seal habitat, and jelly fish display.

Non water-based attractions include a butterfly house, dinosaur display, Amazon enclosure, panda exhibit and numerous rides that are based at the park's headland.

Ma, who became a dolphin trainer five years ago, decided on her vocation due to her love of animals and outdoor work.

She studied marine biology at university, but maintains that the job is about more than having a particular degree. "It certainly helps if you're a quick decision maker. But more importantly, it's about having a love of animals, and possessing a positive attitude and patience," Ma says.

"And it doesn't hurt if you can swim," she laughs.

There's no pre-training required before starting the job. Successful candidates attain all their skills through on-the-job learning, which usually lasts about six months.

International dolphin trainers also are regularly invited to the park to teach and help rookies with techniques and tips.

Ma's main duties, which are carried out between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., fall into three areas: care, training and live shows.

"Trainers help to maintain the dolphins' health with the help of vets," Ma explains.

"For example, if temperatures need to be taken, we try to relax the dolphins while vets monitor and examine them."

No one trainer takes care of an individual dolphin. All of the 32 trainers employed by Ocean Park pitch in together, though trainers still get to know individual dolphins quite well.

"Dolphins can certainly have moods, and we're aware of which ones are more moody than others. Some can have temper tantrums, while others have a sunnier disposition," Ma says.

For training, Ma says abilities for individual dolphins differ, with some beginning at a very young age, while others start after adulthood.

Trainers use a positive reinforcement techniques, of which one strand is target training. This essentially means using a tool (for example, a red-colored stick) that helps guide the dolphins through simple commands.

"It depends on each individual," Ma says, "but in general, it takes at least four to five years for a dolphin to learn what it needs to perform live.

"It depends a lot on their physical strength," she adds. "They need to be strong enough to perform their exercises and, just like humans, some are more skilled than others."

Ma says the dolphins, which are usually either born in captivity or brought in from Indonesian waters, possess the well-known intelligence so often associated with the marine mammals.

"Sometimes, if we want them to do something, they'll preempt our order and go off and carry out the instruction. It's as though they can read your mind," she says.

By far Ma's most demanding role takes place during the 30-minute live shows. She, along with other trainers, must not only keep track of the dolphins and the issuing of commands, but also enter the water with the creatures.

One particular trick involves two dolphins pushing Ma through the water using their noses on the balls of her feet, before she disappears beneath the surface. A few seconds pass, then, at an alarming rate of speed, Ma shoots vertically from beneath the deep pool's surface at least four meters into the air.

Cue more oohs and ahs.

But such displays don't always go so smoothly, as Ma remembers.

"I was doing my very first show, and when I jumped into the water, they ignored all of my orders and swam off. It was almost as if they knew it was my initial time, and they wanted to play a trick on me," she says.

"I was left in complete embarrassment if front of thousands of people. Thankfully, when I tried again minutes later, they cooperated fully."

The dolphins, which usually live out their remaining lives within the park after retiring from performing, have helped Ma in a surprising way.

"The communication skills you develop with dolphins are so unique, they've helped hone the same skills I use to communicate with people," she says.

"Such, I guess, is the special bond we humans have with these incredible marine mammals."


story.dolphin.kiss.cnn.jpg.jpg

Claire Ma gets close and affectionate with one of the dolphins.

SPECIAL REPORT

FACT BOX

• The global unemployment rate remained unchanged in 2005 at 6.3 per cent
• In 2005, of the 2.8 billion workers in the world, nearly 1.4 billion did not earn above US$2 a day
• Each day, an average of 6,000 people die from work-related accidents or diseases
• About 4 percent of the world's GDP is lost yearly through work-related accidents and sickness
• Toxic substances kill 438,000 workers yearly, with asbestos alone causing 100,000 deaths

Source: International Labour Organization

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