I almost missed all the mayhem with the giant panda because a dolphin stole my bathing suit.
The dolphin was a male Atlantic bottlenose named Snickers, and I was swimming in the Dolphin Adventure tank at FunJungle Wild Animal Park. Snickers was known for being extremely playful, but up until that point, he’d never swiped anyone’s clothing before. Fortunately for me, it happened at eight in the morning on a Sunday, an hour before the park opened, so there were only two other people around when I got pantsed. Unfortunately, both of those other people were girls.
One of them was my girlfriend, Summer McCracken, the fourteen-year-old daughter of the owner of FunJungle. The other was Olivia Putney, the dolphin trainer. Olivia was
twenty-three, but she behaved in such a youthful, enthusiastic way that I often forgot she was ten years older than me.
Dolphin Adventure was an enormous saltwater tank where tourists could pay to interact with the park’s eight dolphins. Some less reputable dolphin encounters allowed tourists to ride on the animals, but FunJungle only let guests swim close by, feed the dolphins some fish, and pet them gently. Everyone loved it. The sessions were expensive—and that was in addition to the steep price of park admission—but Dolphin Adventure sold out almost every day.
Summer and I had been swimming with the dolphins a lot lately. We had come for the first time a month before, when Summer had surprised me with a private swim for my birthday. Normally, guests swam in groups, but since we did it after official park hours, the two of us and Olivia had the dolphins all to ourselves. It was supposed to be a one-time event, but then Olivia had invited us to come back whenever we wanted—so we had. Usually, we visited after the park closed; even though it was only April, central Texas could still be awfully hot in the evenings and the dolphin tank was refreshingly cool. No one ever charged us, even though Summer could easily afford it. It was one of the perks of being the owner’s daughter. The trainers claimed it wasn’t a big deal; one of them always had to be there before opening and after closing anyhow, and they said the stimulation we
provided was good for the dolphins. They even gave us our own employee lockers to store bathing suits and towels, so we didn’t have to lug our stuff home and back each time.
We hadn’t really meant to go swimming that morning. We had really come to FunJungle to see Li Ping. The five-year-old panda’s arrival was a huge deal. Most animals were owned by their zoos, but every panda in the world was owned by the country of China, which only loaned them to a few select zoos around the world. Other animals could attract crowds, but nothing else on earth was as rare, adorable, and beloved as a giant panda. The fact that one was coming to FunJungle had boosted ticket presales for the entire summer.
Li Ping was supposed to be there at 8:00 a.m., but Summer and I had arrived much earlier. That wasn’t a big deal for me, since my family actually lived at FunJungle. (Both of my parents worked for the park—Mom was the head primatologist, while Dad was the official photographer—so we lived in employee housing beyond the back fence.) Summer lived twenty miles away, but she and her father weren’t about to miss something this momentous. Unfortunately, the truck with Li Ping got stuck in a major traffic jam on I-10, delaying the panda’s arrival at least an hour. Even that early in the morning, it was already hot, so Summer had said that, instead of just sitting around, we might as well go see the dolphins.
A few months before, J.J. McCracken would have had
a bodyguard tail Summer to the dolphin tank, but Summer had always chafed at this. Having enormous men constantly following her made it difficult to have a normal social life. So she’d begged her father to stop hiring them, pointing out that, so far, the guards had actually caused more problems than they’d solved. (The last one had been complicit in a crime at FunJungle.) J.J. had reluctantly agreed on a trial basis, which had worked out so far.
When Summer and I reached Dolphin Adventure, we found Olivia on duty, feeding the dolphins a breakfast of raw squid and herring. She was wearing her standard Dolphin Adventure bathing suit and her hair was wet, indicating that she’d already been in the tank. Olivia didn’t even bother asking if we wanted to swim. She simply said, “Hop on in, kids! The water’s fine!”
“Sounds good,” Summer replied, then told me, “Last one in is a sea cucumber!” and bolted for her locker. We quickly changed into our bathing suits, grabbed scuba masks, and hit the water. Summer beat me by five seconds. A bit earlier in the year, we might have needed neoprene suits to keep warm, but it was hot enough that day to go in without them.
The dolphin tank was an oval pool twelve feet deep and a quarter mile in circumference. It was divided into two sections: one for the dolphins to interact with guests and a much larger area to be on their own. The interaction area was
fronted by a long man-made beach built with sand that had been trucked in from South Padre Island. A floating catwalk separated the two areas on the surface, with a small island in the center of the tank. Under the surface, though, there were no barriers. The dolphins were always free to go wherever they wanted. If they felt like ignoring us—or any guests—they could simply swim away.
Two of them, Snickers and his sister, Twix, raced right over to us, eager to play. Bottlenose dolphins are extremely social and the siblings knew us well. They swam all around us, leaping over our heads and corkscrewing through the water below. Snickers kept rolling onto his back, eager to have his belly rubbed, like a 400-pound aquatic poodle.
“Want to see something cool?” Olivia asked us, after we’d been in long enough for our fingers to start pruning. “I’ve taught Twix a new behavior. Check this out.” She stepped onto the floating catwalk and blew into a small silver whistle she kept on a chain around her neck. Twix zipped over to her.
Dolphins’ personalities are as varied as humans’ are. Twix was much more acrobatic than the others, able to do all sorts of amazing tricks, like double flips with a twist. Snickers was far more impish, always looking for ways to steal fish from the trainers. Their mother, Skittles, had the most vocalizations of any dolphin at FunJungle; in addition to whistles,
grunts, clicks, and clacks, she could make an incredible variety of farting noises with her blowhole.
Olivia blew her whistle again.
Twix bobbed upright with her head out of the water.
Olivia then clenched her hand into a fist.
Twix promptly spit a mouthful of water over the wall.
“Cool!” Summer exclaimed. “Can I try it?”
“Sure.” Olivia tossed a handful of squid into Twix’s mouth. “I’d like to see if she’ll do it for other people.” She blew into her whistle once more and pointed toward us.
Twix shot back through the tank to where we were treading water and came to a sudden stop in front of Summer, sticking her head above the surface.
“Okay, Twixie,” Summer said. “When I give you the signal, spit at Teddy.”
“Hey!” I protested.
“One,” Summer counted. “Two . . .”
Before she could get to three, I raised my hand and made a fist. Twix promptly spit a mouthful of water into Summer’s face instead of mine.
Most people assumed I liked Summer because she was rich, beautiful, and famous. They were wrong. I liked Summer because she was the coolest, smartest, most down-to-earth girl I’d ever met. (Although her being rich, beautiful, and famous were all nice perks.) For example, a lot of girls
might have been upset to have a giant marine mammal spit on them. But Summer thought it was funny. She spluttered a bit, laughing the whole time—then pounced on me and tried to dunk me. “You’re going down for that!” she warned.
I caught her arms in mid-attack and we ended up wrestling, each trying to shove the other one under the water. Snickers seemed to feed off our energy, spiraling around us in the pool. He even nudged us a few times, like he wanted to join in the fun.
And then, he grabbed my bathing suit in his teeth and dove, yanking it right off me.
I was suddenly buck naked except for my scuba mask. Needless to say, this caught me by surprise. I forgot all about wrestling. Summer, who hadn’t noticed I’d been stripped, promptly dunked me. She shoved me under and crowed victoriously.
Below the surface, I spotted Snickers speeding to the farthest end of the tank, my bathing suit clenched firmly in his mouth. It didn’t look like I was going to get it back anytime soon.
I promptly cupped my hands over my privates and bobbed back to the surface.
“I got you gooood,” Summer taunted, still unaware of what had happened. “And you are not getting me back.”
“You’re right,” I agreed. “I’m not.”
Summer cocked her head at me curiously. “You’re gonna let me get away with that?”
“Um, yes. I’m feeling very chivalrous.”
“You weren’t so chivalrous when you made Snickers spit in my face,” Summer told me. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” I said, a bit too quickly.
Summer might have pressed on suspiciously if her cell phone hadn’t rung. She’d left it on the fake beach with her towel, and it now chimed loudly with the specific ringtone that indicated her father was calling.
“That’s Daddy!” Summer exclaimed, then checked her watch. “Oh man, we’ve been here longer than I thought! I’ll bet Li Ping’s almost here!” She swam for the beach.
I stayed right where I was, trying to figure out how to get out of the pool without revealing I was naked.
Now Olivia grew suspicious too. Thankfully, from where she was standing on the catwalk, she couldn’t see too well below the surface of the water, so she hadn’t noticed my nakedness yet either. “You’re not going to see the panda?” she asked.
“I thought I’d take a little extra time with the dolphins,” I replied.
“You can swim with the dolphins whenever you want,” Olivia pointed out. “A giant panda doesn’t show up every day.”
Normally, this would have been a good point. However,
even though I was excited to see Li Ping, I wasn’t excited for the two girls to see me naked. Or to even learn that I was naked.
Only, that was getting harder and harder to keep a secret. Summer had now reached the beach. As she checked the message from her father, she realized I was still back in the pool. “What are you doing?” she demanded. “Daddy says Li Ping will be here in fifteen minutes! We’ve gotta bolt.”
“You go ahead,” I said. “I’ll catch up.”
“I’m not going without you,” Summer insisted, then asked, “Why are you treading water so funny?”
“What are you talking about?” I asked innocently.
Summer’s jaw dropped as she finally realized why my hands were cupped over my privates. “Oh my gosh. Did you lose your bathing suit?”
“No,” I lied.
At which point, Snickers ambushed me from below. He’d returned from hiding my bathing suit and was still in a rambunctious mood. Dolphins are surprisingly powerful. With only a few strokes of their tails, they can launch their entire bodies ten feet out of the water. Or plow into a great white shark hard enough to kill it. Or, it turned out, fling a thirteen-year-old boy fifteen feet through the air. Snickers drove his head right under my rear end and flicked me upward. The next thing I knew, I was flying. In my surprise, I
let go of my privates and windmilled my arms in the air, allowing Summer and Olivia ample opportunity to see that I was completely naked. Then I belly flopped back into the water.
When I resurfaced, Summer and Olivia were laughing hysterically. So was Snickers. The dolphin’s laughter sounded more like rapid-fire clicking, but I definitely got the sense that he knew what he’d done was funny. To everyone but me, at least.
“What happened to your suit?” Summer asked, though she was laughing so hard she could barely speak.
“That jerk stole it!” I exclaimed, pointing at Snickers.
Snickers apparently didn’t like being insulted. He promptly flipped his tail, dousing me with a wave of water.
Summer laughed even harder.
“It’s not funny,” I said.
“Yes it is,” she informed me. “In fact, it’s very funny. And I guarantee you, if I’d lost my bathing suit in there, you’d be laughing.”
I didn’t reply to that, because it was probably true. Instead, I said, “Could you two turn away so I can get my towel?”
Summer and Olivia both averted their eyes. Snickers hit me with another wave of water.
I clambered out onto the beach and quickly wrapped my towel around me.
Summer started for the women’s changing room, where
she’d left her dry clothes. “Let’s move it. Li Ping’s gonna be here soon.”
“I’m drying off as fast as I can,” I told her.
The changing rooms were to the side of the beach, next to a small building where guests checked in for their dolphin swims. Both structures had thatched roofs to give the impression that we were on some tropical island, rather than two hundred miles from the ocean. The walls of the changing room didn’t even go all the way up to the thatch, so we could easily talk back and forth between them. As I rinsed off the salt water in the men’s shower, Olivia called to me from outside the door. “Teddy! How did Snickers get your swimsuit off?”
“He just grabbed on to it with his teeth and yanked it down!” I yelled back. “Then he swam away with it.”
“Hmmm,” Olivia said, like something was bothering her.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“He’s never done that before,” Olivia said. “And none of the other dolphins have either, so he couldn’t have learned it from them. I wonder where he got the idea.”
I turned off the water and grabbed my towel. “He couldn’t have figured it out himself?”
“It’s possible,” Olivia replied, “but it’s highly unlikely. There are two types of dolphin behaviors: natural ones and learned ones. A natural one would be something with a purpose, like leaping out of the water—while one that’s learned
is more of a trick, like doing a backflip. Stealing someone’s bathing suit doesn’t seem like it’d have much natural purpose to a dolphin, and it’s a little complicated, so my guess is it was learned.”
“Hold on,” Summer said from the women’s room. “Are you saying one of the trainers taught Snickers to do that?”
“I hope not,” Olivia said. “But I don’t think I can let Snickers interact with the public for the time being. If he strips the suit off a paying guest, we could get sued.”
I yanked on my dry clothes and exited the changing room. “How could someone else have taught the dolphins to do anything? No one has access to the dolphins except the trainers, right?”
“No one else is supposed to have access,” Olivia corrected. “But maybe someone does.”
“And you’re worried they’ll teach all the dolphins to strip the guests?”
“Actually, I’m more worried that someone’s been in with the dolphins without authorization. Maybe they didn’t really try to teach Snickers to pants people, but it still happened somehow.”
“Dolphins pick up behaviors all the time without necessarily being taught them. They can learn things just by interacting with guests. When the trainers are here, we can try to
make sure they don’t pick up any bad habits. But if someone sneaks in here when we’re not around . . .”
“The dolphins could learn some bad behaviors?” I finished.
“Yes. But even more importantly, the dolphins could get hurt. Like if someone didn’t know what they were doing and tried to ride one of them.” Olivia turned to me. “Teddy, you’re tight with security . . .”
“I wouldn’t say that, exactly . . .”
“Well, you’ve solved a couple crimes around here. So you know Chief Hoenekker pretty well. Could you ask him to check the security feeds from the last few days for me?”
“Only the last few days?”
“If the dolphins learned this behavior more than a few days ago, I think we would have already seen them do it.”
“Sure,” I said. “I can ask Hoenekker.”
Summer exited the changing room, wearing one of her standard all-pink outfits. That was her trademark when she appeared in public, and there were going to be lots of TV cameras around that day. (Summer didn’t actually like pink that much; she’d chosen it as her trademark color so that, when she didn’t wear it, most people wouldn’t recognize her.) Her blond hair was still wet, making it look darker, and she was pulling it back into a ponytail. “Hoenekker’s gonna be awfully busy with the panda today,” she told Olivia. “You might want to call security yourself.”
“I will,” Olivia said. “But I’m worried they might not take me seriously. Having a dolphin stealing bathing suits probably won’t seem like a very high priority to them. So I figure every little bit helps.”
“Good point,” Summer admitted, then checked her watch. “Teddy, we have to motor or we’ll miss Li Ping.”
“I’m ready,” I said, tossing my towel into my locker.
Summer did the same thing, and we ran for the front gates of FunJungle.
If I had known how big a disaster the panda’s arrival was going to be, I would have stayed in the pool.