GRAND TURK, Turks and Caicos Islands, Tuesday September 1, 2015 – The Turks and Caicos Islands have long been considered a haven for wild dolphins and whales, with laws forbidding their confinement. So a proposal to establish dolphinariums on two islands in the archipelago has been met with a storm of protest.
When Jamaica-based Dolphin Cove’s plans to build the attractions in TCI first became public in 2012, thousands signed a petition demanding the application be thrown out, and planning chiefs were bombarded with more than 100 angry letters from across the globe.
Further contention erupted when it emerged that the TCI governor had amended regulations to allow marine mammals to be kept for display, exhibition and performance.
The BBC reports that then Governor, Ric Todd, lauded the economic boost he said would “significantly complement” the British Overseas Territory’s tourism offerings.
Todd was not alone.
Many residents in Grand Turk welcome the fiscal stimulation they believe will be triggered by the facility, which recently secured outline planning permission.
But for its opponents – still staunch after a three-year fight – the real battle is just beginning.
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Barbara Young, of environmental non-government organisation Pride, argues that tourists who visit dolphin parks are often ignorant of the animals’ plight.
Young, who campaigned for the release of some of the UK’s last remaining captive dolphins into the waters of TCI, has been campaigning for dolphins for decades. She alleges that dolphins are routinely fed medication to prevent stress-induced ulcers and given regular invasive endoscopies to monitor their condition.
This assertion is backed by a World Animal Protection/Humane Society of the United States report called ‘The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity’, which states that cetaceans in captivity are routinely given antibiotics and ulcer medications, and are in need of vitamin supplements because they are being fed nutrient-deficient frozen fish and have a history of premature death from a variety of causes.
The report also notes that, for many dolphins, enclosure sizes are less than one percent of their natural habitat range.
Back in TCI, one of the most outspoken critics of building dolphin parks is Former Director of the Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs, Kathleen Wood, who described the “exploitation of dolphins for economic gain” as “the moral equivalent of slavery.”
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In a letter she sent to the TCI Planning Department last year she recommended the scheme be turned down, according to the BBC.
Wood argued that it would have a disastrous effect on the country’s image as a green destination and could alienate the growing number of tourists and travel agencies which boycott places that allow marine mammal parks to operate.
She also spoke of the adverse ecological impact it could have on the proposed North Creek site, a critical habitat for 500 greater flamingos, along with conch and mangroves.
Globally, marine parks have been slammed for fuelling the trade in capturing wild animals and for high mortality rates among their animals.
There are already some 30 dolphinariums in the Caribbean, says Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). They can be found at a number of regional tourist meccas, including The Bahamas, Jamaica, Tortola, Grand Cayman, the Dominican Republic and Cancun.
The Dodo reports that even more facilities are being built in the region, including one that recently opened in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, and another proposed in St Lucia, according to Courtney Vail, the campaigns and programme manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), who has been campaigning against cetacean captivity for 16 years.
The WDC documented many welfare incidents in the region in a 2010 paper called “Captivity in the Caribbean.”
In one facility in Antigua, dolphins were found to be “unusually dark” due to shallow enclosures and subsequent sunburn; some were found to be held in isolation for training purposes; and some were exposed to polluted water.
“Although some Caribbean countries have developed legislation to address these captive dolphin programs, regulations are rarely enforced, and facilities operate under the radar in most, due to the lack of capacity and oversight,” Vail told The Dodo.
Ceta Base is a site that logs the capture, transport and death rates of captive dolphins around the world. At The Dodo’s request, Ceta Base estimated there are some 240 dolphins — both wild-caught and captive-bred — in facilities across the Caribbean, and that most of the wild dolphins hailed from Cuba, Honduras and the Gulf of Mexico.
Forty of these dolphins are at Dolphin Cay, a popular facility opened in 2007 at Atlantis, the luxury resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas.
The first dolphins to live at Dolphin Cay were relocated from the Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The transfer was well-publicized and was also the subject of a 2007 book, “The Katrina Dolphins: One-Way Ticket to Paradise.”
Sam Duncombe, the director of reEarth, a Bahamian grassroots organization that was behind the closure of another captive dolphin facility in the Bahamas last year, has been fighting against the development of dolphinariums — including the Atlantis — for nearly 25 years.
“[The Katrina dolphins] were bought, not rescued,” Duncombe told The Dodo. “It was greenwashing in a big way.” Duncombe also maintains that the cells the dolphins are in are “horrible.”
“When I saw what they had built [for the dolphins], I cried,” she said. “The bloody fish in the aquarium have more than [them], with corals and rocks. These dolphins just have bare white concrete pools.”
Duncombe’s concern about the depth of the pools is shared by scientist Naomi Rose, from AWI, who says that dolphins routinely dive to 60 feet.
Ten feet, she argues, “is far too shallow!”
The cruise ship industry is generally thought to be responsible for the rapid increase in the number of dolphinariums in the Caribbean.
“Every proposal for a new swim-with-dolphin facility was premised on the need to meet the demand from cruise ship tourism,” says Rose, who notes the trend really took off in the 2000s.
Some dolphinariums, she points out, don’t even have parking lots: Tourists simply disembark, swim with the cetaceans, then re-board the ship.
According to Diana McCaulay, CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), which has protested dolphinariums in Jamaica: “Unless you stop the demand side, which is those great many cruise ship passengers and North American tourists, you will continue to see dolphinariums open in the Caribbean.”
McCaulay told The Dodo that the process of capturing dolphins in the wild is “very traumatic,” a claim backed up in a December 2014 letter jointly written by the AWI and WDC in protest of a proposed St Kitts dolphinarium at Bird Rock Beach.
The letter points out that scientific data from 1995 have shown that the mortality rate of captured bottlenose dolphins is dramatically increased during capture and transport.
Individuals may become entangled in the capture nets and suffocate or suffer stress-related conditions associated with the trauma of capture. In addition, captures from the wild can negatively impact already depleted dolphin populations by removing breeding (or otherwise important) members from the group, The Dodo reports.
Voicing her concerns about captive-bred dolphins, reEarth’s Duncombe says these animals are losing their instincts: “What these facilities are doing … is creating a whole substructure of animals who have no way of living in the wild,” she said.
Ultimately, Duncombe hopes that the public will pay more attention to the plight of the dolphin in captivity. But to the tourist who is still thinking about swimming with dolphins, she says bluntly:
“Your desire to be with them — is killing them.”
Back in TCI, tour operator Tim Ainley hopes the campaign by environmentalists and activists will be successful in blocking Dolphin Cove’s plans.
“We’re so busy exploiting dolphins but if we stopped and listened we’d find they had a lot to teach us instead,” he said.