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Training dolphins gave a Swarthmore basketball player a new passion during the pandemic | Mike Jensen

When Swarthmore canceled sports for this academic year, many of the men’s basketball players took a gap year of sorts. This is how Julian Levin has spent his.

Julian Levin spent the last three months interning with marine mammals in the Dolphin Discovery area at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. He works with Chesapeake, the oldest of the six dolphins at the aquarium.
Julian Levin spent the last three months interning with marine mammals in the Dolphin Discovery area at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. He works with Chesapeake, the oldest of the six dolphins at the aquarium.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

There are similarities, Julian Levin will tell you. On the men’s basketball team at Swarthmore College, Levin, like most of his teammates, took a year off from school due to the pandemic, and has gone from student to teacher lately, helping train a special group down in Baltimore.

Basketball players?

Well, they might fool around with a ball. If you lined up all college athletes and asked them to tell their What I did during the 2020-21 pandemic tales, Levin’s would have to rank pretty high: “I helped train dolphins.”

At the National Aquarium, marine mammals division.

“The dolphins basically have their own pier, their own building,” Levin said of the six dolphins he’s been training by the Baltimore Inner Harbor. Four females, two males. Youngest is 12, the oldest just turned 29.

“It would never have occurred to me that so much thinking went into training and interacting,” Levin said.

He’s used to dealing with smart ballplayers. Swarthmore was having a special season in 2019-20, ranked No. 1 in the country in NCAA Division III, 28-1 overall, already into the NCAA Sweet 16 when the season got stopped in its tracks last March by the pandemic.

» READ MORE: How a visit to a Villanova women's practice changed everything for Swarthmore men.

Levin, a 6-foot-5 forward, isn’t a star on the team. He hasn’t yet played much at all. He has an active game role, though, as the guy on the bench up after plays twirling a finger. The message, passed down from older guys, Levin said, is to signify next play, move on.

“The refs tell me to sit down,” Levin said. “I sit down, get right up.”

Levin jokes about training the dolphins to learn the twirling move. They’ve got plenty of their own, though.

“Highly intelligent,” Levin said. “The dolphins have learned well over 60 behaviors.”

The public gets to see them in action, but these aren’t shows, Levin explained. They are training sessions. For him, too.

Levin wasn’t unusual in staying away from school this past year, even virtually. When Swarthmore decided last summer there would be no intercollegiate athletics for the academic year, a good number of the men’s basketball players took a gap year of sorts.

“It was a shot through the heart,” Levin said of the initial news.

Some players took classes. Some coached hoops. One guard got his real estate license. When Levin finally got out of his home in Rockville, Md., he first went on a road trip through national parks with Swarthmore friends, taking in Yellowstone and Zion and a bunch of others.

“It was beautiful, getting the opportunity to really explore and be out in nature, especially after being locked down the previous six months,” Levin said. “It was incredibly refreshing. Once I got back home, I started thinking about things that would interest me in and around Maryland. Especially with our basketball schedule, we don’t get a ton of time at home. That was an unforeseen benefit of the pandemic, spending all that time at home, getting quality time with my parents and my brother. ...

“I’m a bio major,” Levin said, with his future plans still to be determined, not ruling out medical school or another biology field. He applied for internships at the National Zoo and the aquarium, heard back from the marine mammal department. A few days after interviewing, he got word, they’d love to have him.

Day 1, do you meet the dolphins?

“Thrown right into it,” Levin said, explaining how he was met at the security desk, brought to the dolphin building, given a pair of boots, an aquarium shirt, quickly shown how to fillet fish to feed to the dolphins. No, he wasn’t immediately set loose from there.

“There’s a ton that goes on behind the scenes,” Levin said. “We’re in charge of their entire well being.”

In his early days, that meant a lot of sitting by the windows, monitoring all their behavior, “making sure nothing is out of the ordinary, having a baseline.”

Face time with the dolphins

Reading the moods of the various dolphins is paramount. If they’re not into getting weighed or measured, for instance, such tasks are held off. It sometimes sounds as if the dolphins are the trainers.

“It’s a maternal society,” Levin said. “The females sort of run the structure.”

As his first weeks progressed, his responsibilities “slowly but surely” shifted a bit, to develop his own positive relationship with the dolphins. “When there’s a new face, you work hard to gain trust,” Levin said. “My mentors started giving me face time with the dolphins, poolside.”

He also was reading theory on the purpose of providing mental stimulation, while meeting their needs as much as possible.

“At this point, I’m doing more complex behaviors with them,” Levin said last week, his final week in the internship.

If a behavior isn’t up to standard, there’s no negative reaction from trainers. They stay calm. While positive behaviors naturally get noted, sometimes with a whistle, a bridge of sorts that tells dolphins, go get some fish.

“The dolphins test as well,” Levin said. “They’re incredibly smart. You’re having a conversation with the dolphins, in-depth. No words uttered. You can tell from their looks -- it’s truly a conversation back and forth. Getting to see it behind the scenes is truly mind-blowing.”

Any similarities to Swarthmore hoop practices?

“Honestly, I think so,” Levin said. “Our team, we work together and give up our personal desires for the good of the team. That’s the exact same thing we do with the dolphins. The dolphin might not want to interact with you. You have to adjust. They might have a hormone spike or not feeling it. You have to ‘next play’ it.”

A couple of the dolphins had balls they’d bounce on the pool floor. Levin thinks he should tell his coach, Landry Kosmalski, he’s got a couple of new recruits for the coaches to consider.

One of his best days was when this dolphin, Beau, was engaging with one of the trainers, but wasn’t really responding. Then Levin got switched on to him — “he was incredibly engaged, sitting up straight, looking me in the eye. It was like, ‘Wow. We’re really connected.’ ”

His mentor has positive relationships with all the dolphins, Levin said, so wasn’t put off by Beau engaging that day with the new guy. For 10 minutes, Beau was into it.

“It was enthralling,” Levin said.

Maybe a tail splash

A favorite session is called Innovation. The dolphins pick a behavior, get rewarded for it, then have to pick an entirely different one. Keep choosing a new one. No reward for repeats, even down the line. Maybe a tail splash, followed by a vertical behavior, coming out of the pool.

“They can have a streak of eight to 10 behaviors,” Levin said. “It really is up to them.”

Sometimes, he said, they’ll try something that isn’t even an official behavior. That’s awesome in itself. They’ll actually innovate.

The aquarium has plans for an ocean-water sanctuary for the dolphins, so all this is part of a longer-term mission. For Levin? Being part of another team, as teacher and student, has put theories into poolside practice. He wouldn’t have chosen to spend a year away from Swarthmore, but he made use of it. Now? Twirl that finger. Next play.

Meanwhile, down in Baltimore, Beau might be wondering by now, what happened to the new guy?