Marine mammal theme parks hedge big bets

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2001:

SAN DIEGO, MANILA, LA PAZ–Swim-with-dolphins attractions are making a splash worldwide, but the smart money in marine mammal exhibition seems to be betting on a future with far fewer captive whales and dolphins, at fewer facilities.

That comes as a turnabout, since the anti-marine mammal captivity movement that erupted in 1993 like the fictitious orca Willy’s leap to freedom at the climax of the first Free Willy! film took a cold bath during the past few years when Keiko, the orca who played Willy, showed little desire to be free.

Marine mammal facilities routinely release rehabilitated short-term captive animals, like Rocky, Frosty, and Hillsborough, a trio of three-year-old manatees who were turned loose on May 15 by the Lowry Park Zoo, of Tampa. Eight days later, the Lowry Park Zoo also released BB, a bigger manatee, and Cinco, who had received special care at the zoo since May 5, 1996, when she arrived with severe injuries after being hit by a boat.

Even after five years in captivity, Cinco was expected to do well in the wild. But manatees are placid grazers. Neither their lifestyles nor their intellects are as complex as those of orcas–and after 20 years in human custody of one kind and another, including more than five years of active rehabilitation efforts, Keiko is a head case.

In early 1996 Keiko was moved from the El Reino Aventura aquarium near Mexico City, where much of the first Free Willy! film was made, to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport Beach. But throughout his stay there, Keiko showed more interest in human visitors than in learning to catch enough fish to feed himself. But hopes were still high in September 1998 that Keiko would swim free any day, after he was flown to a sea pen at Vestmannaeyjar, in the Westmann Islands of Iceland. This was his native habitat, close to where he was captured in 1981 for Marine-land of Niagara Falls, Ontario, two years before he was sold to Mexico.

The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation, anticipating life after freeing Keiko, merged with the Jean Michel Cousteau Institute to become Ocean Futures. But Keiko is still at Vestmannaey jar, reported Katy Muldoon of the Portland Oregonian on June 8, and his presence is becoming problematic.

“Vestmannaeyjar is home to one of Iceland’s busiest fishing fleets,” Muldoon explained. “The community hopes to expand its harbor and foster new development, such as a salmon farm. Keiko may not fit neatly into the plans, and his keepers, who spend as much as $360,000 a month on his care, may not be able to afford to keep him there.”

Said Ocean Futures executive vice president Charles Vinick, “If Keiko does not join other whales and we do not see a level of progress that enables us to say, ‘This is going well,’ we’ll look at what’s the best environment to continue the reintroduction effort, and to provide him a home if he doesn’t join other whales,” probably elsewhere in Iceland.

Vinick said Keiko had enjoyed 40 open-sea swims in 2000, including 15 meetings with wild orcas, and had already interacted more with wild orcas this year than last. But time is running out for Keiko. At the estimated age of 23-24, Keiko is already approaching the upper end of the known lifespan of male orcas, though females are known to live up to twice as long.

Shifting tactics

However, much as original marine mammal freedom advocate Ric O’Barry predicted back when Free Willy! was the biggest splash in Hollywood, the Keiko saga may ultimately be seen as just a prolonged distraction from the main activities of the movement.

O’Barry, 61, a former Miami Sea-quarium dolphin trainer, made the first known activist attempt to free a dolphin from captivity on Earth Day 1970, unsuccessfully cutting the nets of a laboratory sea pen in the Bahamas. O’Barry has since returned many former captive dolphins to the wild, with some evident successes and a few conspicuous alleged failures, but predicted all along that Keiko was too habituated to human contact to become a good release candidate.

The symbol is no longer bigger than the cause, and the cause, less visibly split by infighting than when Keiko was the main event, is again closing substandard exhibition sites, discouraging the opening of new ones, trying to prevent captures for display, and forcing the major players in the exhibition industry–especially Sea World–to retreat to their most defensible positions.

Ironically, the success of the marine mammal freedom movement has helped to create the swim-with industry, the fastest-growing form of marine mammal captivity and newest Sea World endeavor. O’Barry et al have convinced the public that dolphins are too intelligent and sensitive to have to jump through hoops–so now, instead of watching dolphins do tricks, millions of people hope to bathe in the dolphin aura. Formerly teased and gawked at, dolphins are today being loved to death.

The aquatic counterparts of roadside zoos that once lined the Florida coasts are mostly gone now, unable to compete with Sea World at Orlando. A few, however, have reinvented themselves as swim-with facilities. Increasingly stringent regulation has kept other swim-withs from opening in the U.S.–but growing demand has encouraged entrepreneurs around the world to dive in, often with little or no animal care experience.

A spinoff effect of the rising interest in swim-with is that the surplus of captive dolphins that encouraged release projects in the mid-1990s has become a shortage. Military-trained dolphins are no longer plentifully available from the former Soviet Union. The U.S. Navy is not surplusing dolphins either.

The Minnesota Zoo has reportedly been trying for more than a year to find mates, through purchase or loan, for an adult female dolphin and an adult male–although the male, at age 39, may no longer be capable of reproducing. An exchange with the Mystic Marinelife Aquarium in Connecticut was discussed, but after the last Mystic dolphin died in March 2001, the Marinelife Aquarium decided to feature California sea lions instead. Sea lions are still available as Navy surplus, and as stranding victims who cannot be released, and their presence at an aquarium rarely draws protest.

Possibly for similar reasons, Orange County Zoo director Forest de Spain reportedly hopes to make a harbor seal exhibit the new focal attraction there, in an area which 20 years ago supported two now defunct dolphinariums. The zoo broke ground for the seal exhibit in November 2000, hoping to complete it by mid-September 2001.

Drive fisheries

The scarcity of longterm-captive or captive-bred dolphins available for purchase has brought a resurgence of captures, especially in Latin American waters and in connection with the Japanese “drive fisheries,” in which dolphins and other small whales are herded aground. A few are kept alive for sale to captive facilities, which have placed orders in advance. The rest are butchered.

“The dolphin capture and export business in Japan has expanded into an assembly line process,” charges U.S. videographer Hardy Jones, who in 1980 was among the first nonparticipants to visually document the drive fisheries. “There are two dolphin bases in Taiji and a new one at Iki. Dolphins are literally ‘packaged’ for export–i.e., they are captured, trained, and shipped, accompanied by a trainer who introduces the dolphin into the new facility. A formidable dolphin packaging infrastructure has developed at Taiji, which contributes to the slaughter of hundreds of dolphins in that village alone.”

The U.S. does not allow the import of pseudorcas and other species caught by that method, but many other nations do, especially in the developing world.

The drive fisheries have attracted protest ever since Hardy Jones’ first visit– originally led by Americans, but the most often raised voice since 1996 has been that of the Elsa Nature Conservancy, of Tukuba, Ibaraki, Japan. ENC earlier this year released Japanese and English editions of a video called Dolphin Hunt In Japan, visually documenting the drive fishery practices. [Ordering details are available from <>.]

Cuba supplied the seven dolphins at Manati Park Bavaro, near Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. A few years ago O’Barry hoped to establish a rehabilitation-for-release center in Cuba–but then Cuban officials learned about the money to be made from developing a dolphin export industry. O’Barry says Cuba is now capturing and exporting as many as 45 dolphins per year.

The dolphin care conditions at Manati Park Bravo were recently investigated by Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society Germany chief executive Niki Entrup, and are now the subject of protest also orchestrated by independent activist Gwen McKenna, of Toronto, and by the German Dolphin Conservation Society, founded in 1991 by documentary filmmaker Rollo Gebhard.

Seaquarium furor

At the height of the Free Willy! fervor, the marine mammals other than Keiko who were most often subjects of demonstrations seeking their release were three other orcas: Lolita, captured in Puget Sound in 1970, kept at the Miami Seaquarium ever since, and Vigga and Yaka, two orcas from the same waters off Iceland as Keiko, who lived at Marine World Africa USA, in Vallejo, California.

Vigga and Yaka are now deceased, and Six Flags Inc. now the owner of Marine World Africa USA, is gradually de-emphasizing the marine mammal exhibits. The “Free Lolita” campaign simmers on, at low intensity, along with ongoing local controversy over how and when aging facilities are to be replaced.

The Seaquarium ran into further trouble in January 2001 when former trainer and longtime marine mammal freedom advocate Russ Rector obtained and disclosed evidence that in April 2000 Seaquarium veterinarian Maya Dougherty and animal care supervisor Chris Plante improperly allowed a Trinidad-and-Tobago native on staff named R. Stollmeyer to take home and stew the meat of an endangered leatherback sea turtle. The turtle died at the Seaquarium while receiving treatment after stranding. Stollmeyer reportedly shared the stew with other members of the Seaquarium staff. Dougherty, Plante, and Stollmeyer were reprimanded by Seaquarium general manager Robert Martinez, but were not charged with violating any laws.

Rector argued that the sea turtle incident illustrated a bad attitude toward wildlife which should boost the “Free Lolita” effort. It did receive national publicity, but without visible effect regarding Lolita. Her native pod in Puget Sound has declined from 98 members in 1996 to just 82 at present–just 11 more than the known low count of 71, after 36 orcas were captured for exhibit between 1965 and 1976, and several others were killed in capture attempts. Possible reasons for the recent decline include a scarcity of salmon, harassment from tour boats, pollution (especially accumulations of toxic chemicals in the fat of some fish species), and loss of genetic diversity.

If Lolita could rejoin the pod and reproduce, she could help restore diversity and healthy numbers–but few pod members are left who might remember her, she may be near the end of her potential for reproduction, and having been captive for half again as long as Keiko, her ability to readapt to the wild is generally believed to be less.


The new totem of marine mammal freedom activism, if there is one, is Luna– who can no longer confound anyone’s hopes. Her one chance to go free reportedly came in January 2001, soon after she was captured on New Year’s Eve in Magdalena Bay, off Baja California, with her two-year-old calf Salsita and six other members of their pod. They were crated and trucked across the Baja peninsula to the La Paz Dolphin Learning Centre, at the La Concha Beach Resort & Condominiums, on the Sea of Cortez. A would-be rescuer apparently cut the nets at the La Paz Dolphin Learning Centre sea pen, but the damage was detected and repaired before any of the dolphins could escape.

“Five weeks later Luna was dead,” explained Mary Jordan of the Washington Post Foreign Service back in March. “A postmortem exam found ulcers in her belly.”

Recounted Linda Diebel of the Toronto Star Latin America Bureau in May, as the case heated up, “Juan Antonio Ramirez, from Channel 10 in La Paz, filmed the dolphins’ arrival. It is a brutal video, showing crates being smashed open with hammers and mass confusion among the handlers. Men keep dropping the dolphins.” A big female dolphin named Quinta was dropped eight times in 40 minutes, according to Diebel, as the stretcher used to carry her repeatedly tore beneath her weight.

Quinta survived, but Luna died on February 3, after several days of force-feeding videotaped by Mexican Marine Mammal Conservation Society president Yolanda Alaniz. “The necropsy suggests that improper oral administration of antibiotics might have contributed to her death,” reported Diebel.

Mexican environment minister Victor Lichtinger responded by imposing moratoriums on further dolphin capture and the opening of new captive dolphin facilities–which have been booming in Mexico, with at least 13 already operating, according to Dolphinaria In Mexico, a critical joint report issued by Alaniz and two colleagues just before the La Paz case blew up.

Lichtinger also endorsed a plan presented by Alaniz and O’Barry to return the seven remaining dolphins to the wild. The World Society for the Protection of Animals pledged funding–but a Baja California Sur state Supreme Court judge ruled in early June that the La Paz Dolphin Learning Centre must be allowed to open for business, and is under no obligation to release the dolphins.

“We cannot prove that the dolphins have been damaged,” explained Lichtinger to Diebel. “That worries me, because I don’t want anything to happen to them. If something does happen to one of them,” Lichtinger pledged, “we will go after the La Paz Dolphin Learning Centre under the criminal code.”
“Today the La Paz survivors are jammed together in narrow pens in shallow water,” Diebel wrote, “near sewer outlets and a noisy highway.” Said O’Barry, “I think it is a death sentence for them. The hot water is coming and with it, the bacteria.”

But O’Barry’s efforts on behalf of the La Paz dolphins were interrupted in June when Ricardo and Ruben Roca of the Mundo Marina traveling show allegedly abandoned two dolphins named Turbo and Ariel at a temporary exhibition site near Santa Lucia, Guatemala. Captured in mid-2000, Turbo and Ariel were judicially placed in custody of the Guatemalan National Council of Protected Areas. O’Barry was optimistic, as ANIMAL PEOPLE went to press, that he could return them successfully to the wild.

Other campaigns are underway against new swim-with facilities in the Philippines; Quebec province, Canada; and Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands. The Tortola project is a fairly conventional commercial enterprise proposed by the Prospect Reef Hotel. The Philippine swim-with, called the Subic Bay Marine Exploratorium, is reportedly the latest project of one Timothy Desmond, of the U.S.-based firm Ocean Environments. Desmond previously came to the attention of marine mammal advocates as a would-be procurer of dolphins from so-called “drive fisheries,” for the Beijing Aquarium.

The Philippine Animal Welfare Society and Earth Island Institute-Philippines representative Trixie Concepcion won a January 2001 ruling from the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources that the swim-with could not operate without a DENR permit, but the swim-with opened anyway on February 12.

The DENR issued a cease-and-desist order against the swim-with on March 12. The swim-with then obtained a temporary restraining order enabling it to continue operations pending the outcome of an appeal. The inability of the DENR to close the Subic Marine Exploratorium may have encouraged fishers on Albay island to capture and exhibit a 20-foot whale shark of unknown gender at Rapu-Rapu, and a 15-foot female whale shark with two offspring at Barangay Cawayan. The whale sharks reportedly drew crowds for a week before the DENR dispatched an official to try to free them.

Up north

The proposed Quebec swim-with is the latest episode in the long-running saga of the Granby Zoo, begun in the 1950s by then-Granby mayor Homer Cabana as a repository for exotic pets he had collected as a world traveler, after losing interest in operating a minor league baseball team. A dusty “roadside zoo” at first, the Granby Zoo was renovated to steel-and-cement “old zoo” norms in the 1970s, just as the “old zoo” style gave way to a more naturalistic type of exhibit. In the early 1980s the Granby Zoo was involved in a snake-smuggling scandal, and imported a baby gorilla named Zira from the Camaroon through a controversial loophole in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Housed among exotic birds, Zira soon developed avian tuberculosis.

After changes of management, the Granby Zoo won American Zoo Association accreditation, and was markedly improved by the early 1990s–but the management has changed again, and the zoo, dependant upon gate receipts and concession sales, is under growing pressure to generate more income.

Down South
A proposed $55 million expansion of the Virginia Marine Science Museum to house dolphins was shelved in February 2001 when the Virginia Beach city council balked at arrangements that would have required them to furnish at least $5.2 million to $7.4 million in construction costs, raised through a sales tax which would be in effect for 25 years.

Bryan Joseph, curator and chief veterinarian of the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, in January 2001 tried to boost the Virginia Marine Science Museum expansion plan by calling it, “the first program I’ve worked on where animal welfare has not been compromised,” an interesting statement considering that Joseph has long been among the most outspoken defenders of marine mammal captivity.

Encouraged by the Virginia Beach cancellation or postponement of expansion, In Defense of Animals, University of Texas Students Against Cruelty to animals, and Animal Liberation of Texas escalated a two-year-old campaign against the planned construction of a dolphinarium at the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi. The aquarium suffered impaired credibility, meanwhile, when laboratory tests revealed in mid-June that 24 sharks and rays who mysteriously died in their holding tanks during the night of May 29 were apparently killed by overdoses of oxygen. Only two cownosed stingrays survived. The shark-and-ray exhibit opened in 1993.

Sea World

The best indicator of the fortunes and internal perspective of the marine mammal captivity industry tends to be whatever Sea World is doing.

Founded with Sea World San Diego in 1964, the Sea World chain has twice changed ownership and thematic directions, but has consistently tended to outcompete, acquire, and close down competitors, while setting the industry standards for tank size, marine mammal care, and support of stranding rehabilitation programs.

The Sea World-built theme parks at Orlando, San Diego, and San Antonio now take in about five million, four million, and two million visitors per year, respectively. Only a handful of marine mammal exhibition venues in the world draw more, and at most of those, like Epcot Center at Walt Disney World in Orlando, the marine mammals–although popular–are not the main attraction.

Along the way, Sea World and marine mammal freedom advocates have developed a mutually mistrustful symbiotic relationship. Because Sea World provides the best of all captive venues for whales and dolphins, it has been largely immune to protests–but protest has helped to economically undercut many now defunct former rivals, from Marineland of California to Ocean World of Florida.

Sea World in mid-2000 jumped into the swim-with market by opening a new site near Sea World-Orlando called Discovery Cove. The Sea World parent firm, Anheuser-Busch Inc., does not disclose site-specific economic data, but outsiders estimate that Discovery
Cove serves somewhere under 1,000 patrons per day.

In March the swim-with admission price was raised from $179 per person to $199. The nonswimming admission price remained at $89. Sea World spokespeople said that demand would sustain the increase. Marine mammal freedom advocate Russ Rector told ANIMAL
PEOPLE, however, that according to his sources within the captivity industry, attendance was below projections because, “They built the tanks too big. The people are down at one end of the pool, and the dolphins are all at the other.”

Other recent Sea World projects hint that the smart money sees little likelihood of American facilities ever again being able to capture or import marine mammals at will:

* In January 2001, the Busch Entertainment Group sold the 30-year-old former Sea World of Ohio theme park to Six Flags Ohio, next door–but kept the three resident orcas, six bottlenose dolphins, four Commerson’s dolphins, 30 Magellanic penguins, and 30 emperor penguins, who were shared among the other Sea World locations. Sea World of Ohio was the smallest Sea World operation. Six Flags Inc. is expected to de-emphasize the remaining animal attractions at the park, much as it has at Marine World Africa USA, since acquiring it in 1998.
* In March 2001, Sea World paid $1.2 million for nine former Marineland of Florida dolphins, after the nonprofit Marineland Foundation went bankrupt only two years after incorporating. The nine remaining dolphins, including Nellie, 48, and Lilly, 43, were sold for $1.4 million, along with Marineland itself, to Marine Park of Flagler Inc., which plans to operate the site as a swim-with. Opened in 1938 as an underwater film studio, Marineland introduced the era of public dolphin performances in 1949.

* In April 2001, Sea World of San Diego announced the first successful artificial insemination of an orca–perhaps essential to maintaining a captive population, since there are only a handful of male orcas in captivity.

* Also in April, Sea World of San Diego acquired Bjossa, the last surviving orca at the Vancouver Aquarium, which in 1964 became the first facility to keep an orca. Fifteen years ago at least 11 North American marine mammal parks had orcas; now just five do, and three of them are owned by Sea World. The Vancouver Aquarium tentatively plans to replace its former orca exhibit with a more expansive display of Pacific Northwest shoreline species, starring eight Stellar sea lions, three sea otters, and two harbor seals who now occupy smaller tanks.

Sea World seems to be approaching a monopoly on proven crowd-pleasing whales and dolphins, while developing the technology to insure that it will never need to capture more. Since 1986, in fact, Sea World has not taken whales or dolphins from the wild, obtaining all replacements for deceased cetaceans either through captive breeding or purchase from facilities which are ending or downsizing marine mammal exhibits.

But Sea World also seems to be hedging bets. On June 21, 2001, the San Diego Planning commission unanimously approved a Sea World request for permission to build new attractions of up to 160 feet in height, which might include a 95-foot-high “splashdown”
roller coaster. San Diego Audubon Society representative Jim Peugh reportedly noted during the debate that Sea World–like the Six Flags facilities–is diversifying away from the longtime emphasis on captive marine mammals, albeit at a slower pace.

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