Making the Most Of Once-In-A-Lifetime Experiences

I always imagined the skin of a dolphin would feel like a wet rubber Batman suit.


I’d touched a dolphin before, at Seaworld. But only the part under the nose (the chin, I guess?). Now THAT felt like a wet rubber Batman suit. And so it was with great surprise that when Kim and I got to swim with dolphins during our trip to the Florida Keys to celebrate our tenth anniversary, the side of the dolphin did not feel as I expected. It’s hard to describe, really. There’s a texture to it. Were I not aware that I was feeling a living, breathing animal, I would have sworn it was a man-made material. Like something that should cover the dashboard in a Ford Mustang. Although I can’t quite describe how it feels, I can describe how it would sound if it were dry and I rubbed my fingernails back and forth against it: it would make a “zip zip” sound.

Not sure if that helps.

Swimming with dolphins has been on our Bucket List for a long time. After having done it, I can’t wait to do it again — maybe when Lucy’s older! — but since nothing is guaranteed and there aren’t any dolphins living in any of Madison’s four lakes, it definitely falls into a potential once-in-a-lifetime experience for us.

The whole thing happened way too fast. It didn’t help that we woke up at 4:00 that morning to take a taxi to the airport in order to catch the first of two flights and then drive two hours in our rental car before finally arriving at Theater of the Sea precisely five minutes before our scheduled check-in time at 3:30 p.m. It turned out to be much more hurried than we’d planned, but a delayed flight and lack of available rental cars have the habit of spitting on the best laid plans.

About halfway through our experience, the following thoughts bolted through my brain: Omigosh, it’s almost over! Am I enjoying it enough? Am I fully present? Am I appreciating the moment? I was worried that I came all this way and spent all this money and now it was almost over and I hadn’t really appreciated it.

It’s a tortuous question to ask oneself, because how do you judge whether or not you are sufficiently enjoying or appreciating something?

After some careful deliberation, I realized that a better question would be, “How will I remember this?” Because really, the point of being “present” is to be open to the details of an experience, which ultimately impact the richness of the memory. My biggest fear had nothing to do with not enjoying my time with the dolphins — I was — but rather having nothing but a foggy blur to remember after the experience was over.

Fortunately, I was able to do some things that served me well in this regard. Perhaps they will serve as useful tools the next time you find yourself in the middle of one of those “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences.

A dolphin gets fresh with Kim.

1.) Just Do It
Probably the most important thing to remember when it comes to making the most of once-in-a-lifetime experiences is this: take advantage of them when you have the chance. The timing is never perfect. Money is always tight. You’re never quite ready. And it’s always easier to put it off ’till next time. Newsflash: next time is never guaranteed. Like I said, I’d like to think I’ll be back for another dip with dolphins, but you just never know. Never put off living for some other day, because that day may never come.

2.) Breathe Deep
With my body still in overdrive from the day’s hurried pace, I felt like I was drowning in a sea of thoughts, with my brain gasping for air. So I decided to breathe. There is no better way to immediately halt hurriedness than with a few deep breaths. Busyness numbs your senses like novocaine, but deep breathing perks up your ability to see, hear, taste, smell and touch, allowing you to fully engage in the moment.

3.) Be Okay with Overwhelm. (Besides, You Don’t Have A Choice.)
After the breathing exercise, I began thinking more clearly. I realized that I had a lot of “firsts” going on simultaneously. Not only was it my first time swimming with dolphins, but it was my first time in the Florida Keys, my first time wearing flippers, my first time swimming in water in which I could actually see fish flitting by me. I’m no expert, but I have to think that anytime you are bombarded by the stimuli of multiple new experiences at once, it’s a little hard to feel like you’re calmly “in the moment.” If my mind felt like it was processing like crazy, it’s because it was. So I gave myself permission to feel overwhelmed by the experience. Interestingly, that helped ease my mind.

4.) Document the Experience
Although I wish I would have been more conscious of the breathing thing from the get-go, I promised myself that I would write down the things that I heard and saw and felt as quickly as possible after the experience. Even though things felt like they were going so fast, I knew my senses were firing on all cylinders and picking up details subconsciously — vibrant details that would eventually fade over time. Being able to refer back to them later would help me to relive the moment. So shortly after settling in to our hotel in Key West, that’s exactly what I did.

Here are a few thoughts I jotted down in my journal:

    • How do people walk in flippers? Seriously. Although they were awkward enough in the water, when walking on land, my steps we so exaggerated that I felt like a giant, enthusiastically crushing miniature invisible villages with my feet.


    • I was expecting more of a swimming pool type environment, but instead we were in a man made lagoon, replete with a mossy floor and tiny shiny fish buzzing around. I wondered if I could catch one with my hand. (Nope.) I hoped that none would swim into my mouth while doing the activities.


Ah...a refreshing mouthful of salt water.

    • I took in a face full of salt water during the dorsal tow, in which you grab the dolphin’s top fin and he pulls you across the pool. You prepare by going to the other side and giving the signal, which is you floating in the deep water in a “T” formation with your arms extended straight out. I didn’t see the dolphin coming up beside me, so it was at the last moment in which I grabbed the fin. Since my primary concern was “don’t let go!” it was with no surprise that my eyes and mouth were given the salt water treatment. Fortunately I didn’t collect any fish in the process.


    • I loved being able to hug the dolphin in the water. There was a real feeling of connectedness and a thrilling sense of the animal’s power. I decided that I never wanted to run into a great white shark, and was happy that dolphins are pretty nice fellows, because the one I was with could have easily kicked my butt if it wanted to.


    • During the buddy swim, in which the dolphin accompanies you for a swim around the lagoon, I got another opportunity to feel his wonderfully textured skin. The trainer warned us not to get into a race and assured us that if we did, we certainly would not win. As we made our way around, I couldn’t help but feel he was thinking, “let’s go, slowpoke!” After all, while I was working extraordinarily hard trying to get the hang of the flippers while not poking him in the eye with my flailing arms, it seemed like he was standing still. I felt like a 95-year-old grandpa being helped across the street by an NFL linebacker. But through it all, the dolphin itself seemed somehow very patient and understanding.


  • There were two different dolphins on duty with us. I regret that I didn’t write down their names, because now I’ve forgotten them. Slippy. Sammy. Something. Proof positive of the importance of writing stuff down. Even the most vibrant memories can fade over time.

5. Enlist the Experts
Everybody’s favorite way to document an experience for later reminiscing is by taking photos and videos. The trick is finding the balance between capturing the experience and having the picture-taking actually become the experience.

We debated whether or not to have the on-site photographers shoot pictures and video on our behalf. I used to think it was one of those overpriced scams to get tourists to part with even more money. We even brought a disposable underwater camera to have the option of doing it ourselves. But then I realized the obvious: these guys are experts. They have professional cameras. They know when the cool stuff is going to happen, and they’re ready for it. So we decided to splurge and let them handle it, and I am so happy that we did. Suddenly the fee became a bargain, as I could focus my attention on the dolphins and not some stupid camera. I was able to more fully immerse myself in the experience and it was nice not feeling like I was going to miss a money shot while fumbling with the flash.

[UPDATE: Just watched the video for the first time, and in the intro, they included the names of the dolphins we swam with: Stormy and Duffy. Nice. Money well spent.]

These are a few of the tips I’ve tried to make the most of the once-in-a-lifetime experiences. What’s worked for you?

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  1. Gotta love the “just do it” advice – because most often that’s all it takes. Over the last two years I’ve managed to take some time off to see places – Argentina, L.A, DC, San Francisco, New York among others. I’m not rich. (In fact I’m now saving like crazy), and I always have a bajillion things unchecked on my todo list. But at least I won’t be regretting later in life I didn’t take the chance when I could. I’m loving this blog.

    • Good for you for taking the time to do some fun stuff now. People often wait for the time to be perfect, which of course it never is. I’ve been hearing a lot about Argentina lately — is it cool?

      • As with any place, it depends on your expectations – I just happen to have a lot of friends there, accommodations are affordable, it’s an exciting mix of European and Latin cultures, and the food is simply second to none.

        (In fact the avatar at right is me having wine tasting in Mendoza under a 95 degree sun. Unique experiences :)

  2. Aw. That’s got to be so much fun! I’ve always wanted to touch a dolphin too. Last time I saw one was when I was just a tiny kid (I was 6 or 7) I know how you feel though when you’re so happy you wouldn’t want the moment to end and you wouldn’t want to miss out on anything, and you’d want to remember it for the rest of your life. Just do something you really wanted to do because otherwise the moment will just pass you by.

  3. Great post!!! I completely agree with your suggestions to let a pro handle the photos. As a pro photographer I tend to think I can photograph an event PLUS experience it. Not true. Lately, I’ve been letting another pro document so that I can enjoy the moment more.

    #2 is a great reminder…. I’m amping up for a pretty stressful 2 weeks, your reminder to just breath helped make my morning a lot more bearable–thanks!

    • Thanks Deb. I guess that settles it; if a pro admits that she can’t photograph and event AND properly experience it, I think it’s safe to safe we all need to be reminded of that tip! Glad you found the post useful!

  4. Hey Jason,

    Great post. I’ve always wanted to swim with them before, and we just missed our chance the last time we were in Cancun. I’m glad you had fun, and you only make me want to go and do it more.

    Thanks for your comment on my blog. It’s been a fun experiment since last October. Patrizzia made me do it since I had not drawn anything for myself in years. They are pretty much all very quick and very small doodles (only a few are a little more elaborate), but I have not missed a day since October 1st (though I’ll put the posts up in large chunks at times).

    In regards to the movie, it is one of my favorites. Very cool story and done very well. I hope you enjoy it.

    Great job with all that you have been doing. I still can’t believe that it all started with those little drawings back at NIU. I’m proud of you, man. And, your daughter is adorable. Isn’t being a daddy awesome? Take care.

  5. Laura says:

    Hi Jason,

    A little late on the comments I realize but I just found your site so I’ve been browsing. :)

    Loved this one in particular, although I’ve found quite a few good ones to “earmark” for a later read outside of work, but this one had a lot of helpful advice that I can take with menow. The photography info. was eye-opening as well. As a bit of an overzealous photographer I was just pondering a few days ago about how my time behind the camera really prevented me from just enjoying being in the moment… it was heartening in a sense to read about your own struggles in this regard… I guess it always helps to hear that you’re on the right track. thanks! :)

    • Laura, It’s never too late for a great comment! I’m glad you’re enjoying the site, and that the post struck a chord. I find that we are better able to relate to other people’s struggles and screw ups than anything else. It’s definitely a tricky battle, the line between recording a moment and remembering to actually live it, isn’t it?

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