CLEARWATER — This is how a dolphin picks the winner of the Super Bowl:
Animal care workers, wearing striped referee shirts, stand beside a Clearwater Marine Aquarium pool watching Nick, a bottlenose.
It’s a gray January morning, pelicans swooping toward the intracoastal in the background. Nick torpedoes around his pool, popping out of the water with a chuff to eye the public relations staffers as they arrive. The aquarium isn’t even open yet, but in the Dolphin Terrace, everything is already irredeemably wet — the concrete, the rubber slip mats, the aluminum bleachers.
Bill Potts, the chief marketing and revenue officer, holds a small black video camera. Carlee Wendell, a campaign manager, clutches her phone, preparing to broadcast the ceremony to Facebook.
“I’m pulling for the Chiefs,” Potts had said earlier. “Tell Nick to pick KC!” a co-worker yelled as he walked outside.
Everyone, earnestly, claims they do not know who the dolphin will choose.
The staffers make idle chit-chat about Jameis Winston and whether he’s the right quarterback for the Bucs, passing time until the big moment.
The care workers move to their places at either side of the pool. One holds up two sheets of paper, laminated and printed with the logos of the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers. Nick will signal to one, pointing with his nose, and then he’ll be thrown a football for that team.
The other care worker waves her hand.
That’s Nick’s cue.
The dolphin plunges through the water like a drop of mercury, quickly clearing the short end of the pool toward the signs. Wendell tries to keep the camera straight.
“Hellow from NORWAY,” a commenter posts, tuning in on Facebook.
“49ers,” another writes hopefully.
Nick makes picks for many major sporting events — the World Series, the College Football National Championship, the World Cup. Videos of him have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times online.
He is 8 for 15 in the last couple years, pretty good. For a 17-year-old dolphin, he’s kind of famous.
Everyone watches as he swims.
This routine, or something like it, is a staple of Nick’s life.
He was still a calf when he came to the aquarium with severe sunburns, after fishermen found him stranded off Gibsonton beside his mother. The older dolphin died, leaving Nicholas — named for Christmas Eve, the day he was found in 2002 — alone. Aquarium staff forced a food slurry down his throat and slathered ointment across the bleeding wound on his back. Nick recovered, and while critics say no dolphins should be held in captivity, the aquarium contends Nick could not survive in the wild. He still has a long scar, wrinkled and spotted with white flesh.
To keep him sharp, trainers test Nick with an activity called match-to-sample, said Robin Curry, an animal care program manager at the aquarium. They hold up a fake starfish or a toy shovel and see if he can show them the matching object in his pool. When he finds the right item, a trainer blows a whistle. Time for a prize.
Nick earns several rewards: a fish snack, a back rub or some time with his favorite toy, a deflated buoy he cheerfully pushes through the water. If he fails the match task, nothing happens.
The dolphin can see just as well underwater as he can in the air. He likely views objects more in shades of brightness than in sharp colors. He can also echolocate, which means as he swims, he sends forth a series of clicks that bounce back, giving him a sense of things like density and location. Echolocation is so strong, trainers have blindfolded dolphins, then observed as the animals successfully replicated their movements underwater, said Erin Frick, an animal studies professor at Eckerd College.
It took several weeks for Nick to learn match-to-sample when he was young, Curry said. Now he picks up a new toy in just one or two sessions.
The sports picks are a little different. Nick is not shown an item to match, and he has never practiced with the signs or balls used in the activity before. But trainers signal him to go find an item, and there’s only two around. So he goes and picks.
In this one game, Nick is always right, no matter which object he chooses. Even when he’s not, his reward does not depend on whether his team wins. For each pick, his treat is a handful of fish: silversides (“Dolphin M&Ms,” according to Curry), capelin and herring (“like a steak dinner”).
Other aquariums and zoos deploy similar gimmicks with animals like penguins and seals. Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium has two manatees, Hugh and Buffet, who make Super Bowl predictions, booping their noses like chunky accordions on signs for each team, to the great delight of guests.
“They’re taking a chance and hopeful that they’re picking a correct object,” said Laura Denum, a senior aquarium biologist at Mote, noting that manatees’ eyesight is twice as poor as a legally blind human.
It’s kind of like gambling.
Match-to-sample tasks are so basic, infants can do them by the time they’re one year old, said Lauren Emberson, co-director of the Princeton Baby Lab.
Still, staffers at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium are a little perplexed by Nick the dolphin’s thinking.
“We haven’t seen him find preference in color or left or right. We haven’t found the pattern yet,” Curry said. “At this point it’s anybody’s best guess.”
People once thought a horse could count. Clever Hans, in the early 1900s, would tap his hoof to signal numbers, solving basic math equations in exchange for a reward. In the time of sideshows, it seemed like a ruse. But it wasn’t exactly.
A psychologist found the horse just had a skill for reading people — their facial tics or body language.
“As the horse approached the right answer, which of course the audience people knew, they would show minor behavioral differences,” said Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University.
The secret was as much about us as him.
Nick might not use the same logic. But for the people who watch him, the appeal is much the same.
“We tend to look at the world from our point of view,” Beck said. That means imagining our experience in non-human beings like a dolphin. “One of the reasons we care about farm animals, research animals and all of that is because we project on them the feelings we would have in the same circumstances.”
Dolphins are popular because they are intelligent and very social, said Philip Tedeschi, director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver. The risk of an activity like Nick’s picks, he said, is that people could come away with a narrow perspective on his abilities, based only on the outcome of a football game.
“Are we missing the point around intelligence when we’re focused on these kind of aspects?" Tedeschi wondered.
The shtick is obviously beneficial for Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a tourist destination largely because of Winter, another dolphin with a prosthetic tail, whose story became a world-famous movie. Winter gets all the attention, though.
Curry hopes Nick’s show brings him some genuine admirers, too.
The picking ceremony usually happens in front of cheering visitors. But Friday, Nick is called upon early, before the aquarium opens, because the Super Bowl is especially popular and people are ... passionate about football. Staffers want to maintain a controlled environment.
Though the Dolphin Terrace is open air, it smells overwhelmingly of fish, thick enough to have a taste. Nick’s snacks await in a gleaming metal bucket.
The ceremony takes all of eight seconds. The dolphin swims to the edge of the pool and pops out of the water, queuing on a sign.
“Smart Dolphin! Way to go Nicholas!” someone watching on Facebook writes.
Another chimes in. “He is wrong! Sorry Nicholas!!”
A care worker tosses Nick a football emblazoned in the colors of his chosen team. At first, he ignores it. Then he begins to nudge the ball through the water with his snout, toward the other trainer who grasps the snack bucket.
Thousands of people will watch Nick’s routine online by the time the aquarium opens half an hour later.
They will see the unmistakable red and white arrowhead logo of the Kansas City Chiefs.
In the pool, Nick the dolphin sees a parade of fish cascading from a hand in the sky.