About the Dolphin Swim Club, a healing VR experience

As an artist Sjollema is a storyteller. Mostly on canvas or paper. Paintings and drawings full of meaning, or at the least a suspicion of it . Tales of the everyday, close to home. Or adventurous journeys real and imagined make their appearance . One very true and special story has been waiting a long time to be told in some form. Over two decades ago, in 1993 she encountered, by chance, a wild dolphin while snorkeling.

“A lone swimmer just like me, we circled each other and looked deep into each other’s eyes. I could feel the sonar clicks passing through and I realized that this beautiful creature had now a better understanding than I did about how I looked inside. It felt very intimate and strangely enough also very caring, like someone cautiously checking after a heavy fall if perhaps something was broken. I was forever enchanted. “ 

Since then, she makes regular trips to meet whales and dolphins around the world,

Early 2015 she came into contact with 360° Virtual Reality. Always being more of a low-tech person, she immediately realized that this could be the ideal technique to tell the story of the dolphins. It seems to be a style break, however Sjollema has another view on that:

“It is a different technique, and requires a different approach. For starters filming wild dolphins under water in 360°VR is a rather experimental and adventurous team production. Here the word ‘dolphin’ already worked its magic to be able to interest some of the best specialists in the world for the project. However as an artist my main tool is the imagination. Whatever technique and material is always relevant for what wants to be told. Indeed to have the whole ocean as a studio, venturing where no artist has gone before”.

However this is not a production that one succeeds in alone. First of all consultant and husband Benno Brada started to co-manage the project. Followed by collaborations with VR technicians, fundraising, free divers, marine biologist experts, post-production technicians, a media specialist and of course last but not least, the dolphins themselves

“All of us became the Dolphin Swim Club. In December 2015, in the crystal clear waters of the Red Sea, we were fortunate enough to successfully film the resident spinner- and indo-pacific bottlenose dolphins. So now everyone can experience, through 360°VR to meet dolphins in their own home, the free oceans of the world. This time however, not only a lone swimmer, and I would have been thrilled to have been able to merely capture that, but schools of up to 90 spinner dolphins swimming all around you.

Recently the art project has even acquired a scientific status. There is already some research done about the beneficial effect meeting a dolphin can have. Today there are many so-called ‘dolphin-assisted’ therapies offered, and it’s a growing industry. Unfortunately this usually involves dolphins in captivity. Gradually more and more studies also show, that life in captivity for a dolphin or a whale is a unfit and considerable shortened life full of suffering. So we thought: ‘Let’s make a great alternative!’ So people can experience wild and free dolphins through Virtual Reality. An easy accessible ‘medicine’ for everyone.

Both the University Medical Centre Groningen (Dr.W.Veling) and the University of Southern California (Prof. Rizzo) will do research on the effects of the images in 360°VR. Within the field of depression, psychosis, anxiety disorders and autism. The pilot study in the UMCG (Groningen, the Netherlands) has started in June 2016 and the whole study will take part within the next 24 months.

Besides the research there are already many people around the world who experienced the wild dolphins, through the specially designed free VR App, on our website or other social media.

As well as a number of institutions in the Netherlands, Europe and the US who want to introduce their patients or residents in this way to the beautiful underwater world of the wild dolphins and their magic.

For example the young people with cancer in Norway, who are treated with a bone marrow transplant, and spend up to 6 weeks in a sterile, isolated environment. Or the elderly lady in a wheelchair, living in a care centre, who told us she dreamed of swimming with dolphins all her life.

However one of the most fairy tale like aspects of the whole project is that we are undeniably official dolphin-approved! On the day we officially started with ‘the Dolphin Swim Club, two wild bottlenose dolphins surfaced in front of the temporary ‘headquarters’, the studio of Marijke Sjollema, at the coast of the Baltic Sea in Sweden. Not only was the timing in itself very special, the fact that dolphins are not native to the Baltic waters, making it a breath-taking miracle! The now famous duo Selfi & Delfi remained about 10 weeks in the area, and became of course the source of many happy adventures with ‘the Dolphin Swim Club. (The whole story of the inseparable duo dolphin adventurers can be found on the blog.)