The following is a guest post written by Jill Austin. Ms. Austin is an associate director of marketing in the Florida office of The Nature Conservancy. She has worked with the media and written about Florida for more than a decade and thanks James Byrne for sharing this personal story about why it is so important to protect nature.
Despite his fear, 3 1/2 year old Diego Byrne entered the salt water in his tiny life vest and did what his counselor told him to do. Through his tears, he touched the dolphin.
“He was apprehensive and nervous,” said his dad, James Byrne, The Nature Conservancy’s marine science program manager for Florida and the Caribbean. “He likes to get in the water usually, but he was scared.”
It was Day One of a five-day family therapy camp and Diego, who has Down syndrome, had spent the morning indoors in a personalized therapy session specifically designed for children with special needs. After lunch, it was time to reinforce the therapy through interaction with the dolphins.
Even as Diego squirmed in the arms of his counselor and the dolphins sliced the water around him, James could tell something special was happening.
“Normally when he is scared he won’t do anything, he just freezes,” James said. “He was overwhelmed, but he did reach out like they told him to.”
As Diego fought his fears, neither he nor his family could have known what was in store: that Diego would soon be riding through the water hanging on to a dolphin fin, smiling and laughing as never before. And, he would leave the camp and go back to his normal routine remarkably different.
“It’s changed him,” James said. “Before, he wasn’t vocalizing. We go to the chiropractor a couple of times a week to relieve his earaches and he would always cry before we even got there. Now he walks right in, smiling, and says ‘ear’ and ‘goodbye’ when we leave. The doctor’s staff couldn’t believe it either.”
An increasing number of studies clearly show that kids who spend time outdoors are happier, healthier and smarter. And it’s not just children who benefit from nature: Studies show hospital stays are shorter when patients look out at trees versus brick walls, blood pressure drops when patients watch fish in an aquarium, and pets aid in heart attack recovery.
The benefits of dolphin therapy are also widely known, with extraordinary breakthroughs documented. At the camp where Diego was transformed, therapy has a deep personal meaning for its owners. Island Dolphin Care is a nonprofit created by a mom, Deena Hoagland, who experienced the recovery of her own son Joe from a stroke at the age of three when he began swimming with dolphins. Joe now teaches at the Key Largo camp that provides dolphin-assisted therapy to children and their families from all over the world.
“There are so many therapeutic metaphors with animals,” said Deena Hoagland, a trained psychotherapist who has used nature in her teachings for the last 30 years. “Dolphins create metaphors all day long and show how important play is and laughter is. No doctor ever says you need a dose of laughter every day, but you do.”
James said dolphins behave differently around children and even more differently around disabled children. “I think because of their echolocation ability they picture the whole person and they can sense things are different,” he said.
In his underwater work for The Nature Conservancy, James encounters dolphins while checking on staghorn and elkhorn coral nurseries and conducting coral reef assessments. Did the experience with Diego change his perspective? “Completely,” he said. “Now when they swim up, I feel like they watch what we are doing and they are observing us as much as we are observing them.”
He feels a bit like he is giving back through his work for The Nature Conservancy. “We don’t do a whole lot directly with dolphins, but they are a component of the whole marine ecosystem we are working to protect,” he said.
Diego’s second-day encounter with the dolphins was completely different from the first, and by the third “he was going for it,” James said, “he couldn’t wait to get out there.”
Diego opens up more now, vocalizes more, and isn’t as reserved with new people. And it looks like his nature nurturing will continue. “Because of me, my family has always walked and hiked in nature,” James explained, “but it’s neat because now Diego is picking it up. We went to the beach the other day and he went right for the mask to go look in the water and snorkel.”
(Image: Diego Byrne joyfully interacts with two dolphins at a camp run by Island Dolphin Care. Image credit: © Island Dolphin Care.)