THE TRUTH ABOUT DOLPHIN ENCOUNTERS
EVER DREAM ABOUT SWIMMING WITH DOLPHINS? READ THIS INVESTIGATION I DID FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES AND YOU MIGHT THINK TWICE.
To the tourists and locals who pour into Attica Zoological Park on a blue winter’s day in Athens, the dolphin show represents the ultimate in wish fulfilment.
After all, if there’s one thing we love more than dolphins, it’s getting up close and personal with them – a fact confirmed by a third of 600,000 customers asked by holiday giant, Tui Travel PLC, 81% of American adults polled by MORI, and a BBC survey revealing that a dolphin encounter or, better still, swimming with them, as No.1 on the list of things people would like to do before they die.
“The common expression is bucket list,” says Stewart Clark, Vice President of SeaWorld Discovery Cove in Florida, where up to 1,000 people a day pour through the gates for a “dolphin interaction.” He recalls a 300lb, 7’ giant of a man sobbing after the experience. “At the dolphin pool, we see people who are just overswept with joy or unbelievably moved to emotion.”
At Attica Zoo, where the closest visitors get to the dolphins is a quick aftershow pet, there are similar emotions as a dolphin heaves itself out of the pool to “hug” its trainer to the strains of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World.
‘I thought it was super,’ says Scot Christine Lewis, who with her husband, Andy, and children, Finlay, 6, and Alice, 4, runs a yacht charter business in Greece. ‘Very impressed. We’ll be recommending it to our friends.’
When I put it to them that the dolphins have, according to the Greek authorities and wildlife charity, Born Free, been imported from the Lithuanian Sea Museum without correct permits, that contrary to park claims at least one was wild caught in Russian waters and all have one wild parent, that the dolphinarium has been put up without planning permission and the zoo owner, Frenchman Jean-Jacques Lesueur, fined 500,000 Euros and taken to court, and that the dolphins have been confiscated by the Greek Government and are not supposed to be performing – all charges hotly refuted by Lesueur, they are taken aback but not put off. The sparkling pool and smiling, cuddly dolphins have won them over.
‘We’ll come again,’ says Andy.
Dolphinariums like Attica are the acceptable face of the dolphin business. The unacceptable face comes in the form of parks like Hisarönü in neighbouring Turkey, where I went in September 2010 with the Born Free Foundation, experts from British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) and local pressure group, Dolphin Angels, to help rescue “Tom” and “Misha, two bottlenose dolphins. We found them bobbing in a stinking soup of excrement, rotting fish and worms, in tiny pool so riven by subsidence it looked as if an earthquake had taken place.
Their Russian owner, Alexandr Kuznetzov, who’d brought them there on the back of a vegetable truck, had left the country after a storm of public disapproval. Previously he’d charged 55 Euros for a 10-minute swim with them.
Both Attica and Hisarönü are symptomatic of a recession-defying boom in the dolphin industry as marine parks in places as far flung as Turkey, China, Japan and Dubai rush to capitalize on the public’s growing obsession with the creature Heathcote Williams called a “shape-shifting sea sprite, Poseidon’s messenger, a Gaian pilot, a demi-god.”
The perceived healing energy of dolphins has fuelled a multibillion dollar swim and therapy (DAT) industry, both legitimate - in 2009, SeaWorld alone made $1.4billion worldwide and US dolphinariums $2 billion - and illegitimate. Across the world, the public’s insatiable appetite to be at one with dolphins is being exploited in countries with little or no legislation by mercenary businessmen and criminal gangs, including the Russian mafia, to whom dolphins, like rhinos, tigers and beluga whales, are the new cocaine.
In a 16 September 2010 email seen by The Sunday Times, an ex-Soviet military trainer involved in the 1995 capture of dolphins destined for Marmaris, Turkey confirms mafia involvement both then - “Half of our crew 95 participated in local (Crimea) criminal groups…” - and now: “As I know during my [recent] vacation’s meetings in Crimea with old colleagues – now ALL Ukrainian (same Russian) dolphins show under criminal control.”
Both regulated and unregulated parks are guilty of marketing dolphin experiences as mutually beneficial: Dolphins adore us too! The result is an explosion in the number of dolphins in captivity – potentially 2,000 according to estimates by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), and a corresponding rise in the torment of these free-ranging, sonic creatures, some of which are driven to pay the ultimate price for our love. Unable to escape their concrete prisons, they commit suicide.
They are, quite literally, dying to make our dreams come true.
Doug Cartlidge came to dolphin training, aged 18, in a most unusual way. Not, initially, because of the glamour of it, but because, as a rarity in 1968 Yorkshire, a qualified diver, he was called into Scarborough Zoo & Marineland to clean dolphin vomit from the filters. Why were they throwing up? Consider their circumstances.
In the early 70s dealers sold dolphins for 1,000 pounds delivered, with a one-month guarantee. Cartlidge routinely flew to Key Largo, Florida, centre of the trade, on a Friday and returned on a Saturday with six dolphins, all the product of wild captures. “Within a month half of them would be dead.” The same statistic is true today. Transportation methods might be more sophisticated, but over 50 per cent of wild dolphins still die from capture shock.
Unknowingly, Cartlidge had plunged headlong into the beginning of the dolphin gold rush, a boom fuelled by 60s TV series, Flipper, in which a talking dolphin captures criminals, performs tricks and charms everyone who meets it.
“Without Flipper, I don’t think we’d have dolphins in captivity,” says Andrew Greenwood of International Zoo Veterinary Group, a dolphin specialist for 25 years. “People wouldn’t know what they were. They’d think they were fish.”
“Flipper” was in reality five dolphins trained by American Ric O’Barry, star of the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary, The Cove, a harrowing expose of the annual drive hunt of 23,000 dolphins massacred or sold by fisherman in Taiji, Japan.
“Flipper created this multi-billion dollar industry,” says O’Barry who has spent the last 40 years campaigning against what he calls the “abusement” parks that keep dolphins in captivity. “I’ve rescued dolphins from Brazil, Guatemala, Columbia and Haiti and a lot of them were called Flipper. They still sell you tickets at the Miami Seaquarium to swim with Flipper, although Flipper is dead.”
As dealers and marine parks scrambled to meet the demand, dolphins, accustomed to swimming up to 40 miles daily and hunting fresh fish in complex, intimate family groups, would find themselves hauled from a bloody sea, greased with lanolin, packed in a coffin-shaped box, and flown across timezones to a concrete tank, where they’d spend the rest of their days performing tricks in return for dead fish.
By the late 70s, Cartlidge, a rugged 60-year-old who is now one of Europe’s top marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation experts, was regularly capturing wild dolphins as director of animal training for SeaWorld on Australia’s Gold Coast in methods still used today. “If they don’t eat after three days, you force feed them and then they will often regurgitate. You put a towel around their bottom jaw, a towel around their top jaw, pull it apart and stuff the fish down.”
Like Cartlidge, O’Barry, whose first day at Miami Seaquarium was spent capturing dolphins later sold for $300 each, was initially seduced by the money, fame and mystique the industry seemed to offer. “I was young, had a glamorous job, I was driving a Porsche and it was easy to do,” he once said.
For Cartlidge, a Yorkshire lad from a pit village, the transition was headier still. At the peak of the British boom, there were 22 dolphinariums in the UK, including one beneath the big dipper at Battersea Funfair. From 1968-78, Cartlidge found increasing fame and fortune training marine mammals at places like Windsor Safari Park, a mecca for celebrities. Rod Stewart came in a Lamborghini, along with Sean Connery, Peter Sellers, the Shah of Iran, Churchill’s wife and Princes Phillip and Andrew. Prince Charles rode the orca, Ramu, and swam with it.
At Christmas, the park sent HRH a card: “To the Prince of Wales from the Prince of Whales.” Later, the same orca attacked and almost killed Cartlidge.
“I knew after less than a year that it was wrong, but I was driving a sports car, I was dating celebrities, I was going to celebrity parties. Am I going to give that up and go for a job down the pits?”
Behind the glamorous façade, however, was a steady drip feed of horrors. Cartlidge knew of dolphins used as drug mules and others frozen after they died and thawed out to claim insurance money.
At Windsor, seven dolphins and an orca occupied one scandalously small pool, yet it was a veritable paradise compared to the conditions notoriously endured by those used in the 1974 Raymond’s Review Bar extravaganza at the Royalty Theatre, Holborn. For 12 weeks, two dolphins lived in a 10,000 gallon Perspex tank kept two feet beneath the stage during performances where they had their teeth brushed and removed dancers’ bikinis.
Despite the booming music, tiny pool and tap dancers clattering across a wooden stage above their heads, their trainer John Dineley, now a DJ and zoological consultant, maintains the dolphins did not exhibit any sign of stress. An enthusiastic proponent of dolphins in captivity, he also insists that, in seven years of training, he never once saw them appear depressed by their barren, alien environments.
“I never noticed the animals doing anything that would suggest to me that they were psychologically disturbed by that environment. They behaved well. They were always enthusiastic to come and play and do things.”
This is not concurrent with the findings of one of the world’s leading dolphin scientists, Dr Lori Marino PhD, a behavioral and marine mammal expert at Emory University in the US. She believes that it is “inarguable that this must have been a very disturbing and painful experience for these animals.
“First, the fact that they are acoustically sensitive means that they are going to be more vulnerable to loud sounds than we are. Second, because they echolocate, they experience sensory deprivation in a tank with basically nothing to echolocate on. Both situations are harmful of course.”
In all, 38 dolphins died at Windsor Safari Park – a detail kept from the public by the commonly used practice of giving replacement animals the same names - before a change in pool size legislation brought an end to dolphins in captivity in the UK. In 1991, Born Free rehabilitated and set free in the Turks & Caicos three of the last dolphins in the UK, Missie, Silver and Rocky, an achievement the charity’s founder, Virginia McKenna, called a “moral triumph.”
It’s a circus, the dolphinarium, no different from an animal in a ring. It’s only that it’s a water circus, not a sawdust one.”
Two decades on, things have changed a great deal in countries where legislation exists, but only superficially. Elsewhere they are, in many cases, worse. The nightmares of the past are relevant because they’re being replicated today at parks across China, apartment complexes and hotels in the Middle East and in travelling shows in places like Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires.
At SeaWorld Discovery Cove, perhaps the world’s most exemplary facility, 3.5 million cubic litres of sparkling seawater is flushed clean every 90 minutes. At smaller parks, filters incapable of processing up to eight kg of excrement per dolphin per day, plus chunks of rotting fish, can result in soaring bacteria levels. The coliform (bacteria) count in the Turkish pool was 11,000, 11 times higher than the maximum allowable in the US. For humans, that can mean chronic skin, stomach and respiratory problems.
To cope, the majority of parks use chlorine. Too much and dolphins are prone to pneumonia, gut infections and agonizing eye and skin conditions. Cartlidge reports seeing “their skin peel off, burn off in patches.”
“For the dolphins, it’s like swimming in weak acid,” says Born Free’s Senior Veterinary Consultant, John Knight. “When you have water quality like that, their immune system can’t cope with the overload.”
Ignorance makes matters worse. In Hungary, one dolphinarium attempted to create homemade seawater using table salt with catastrophic results.
When not performing in the pool the public see, dolphins are frequently kept in holding tanks, often so tiny they can barely turn around. In Japan, where there are 50 dolphinariums, some holding tanks are smaller than the average bathroom. Even in the world’s largest facilities, a captive dolphin’s room to move is less than one ten-thousandth of one per cent of their normal habitat size.
For dolphins, highly intelligent animals that need constant stimulation and in the wild lead dynamic social lives with long-term relationships and the space to escape aggressive confrontations, the effects are devastating. David Taylor, author of ZooVet and the UK’s most famous exotic animal vet for 50 years, witnessed desperate animals banging their heads against concrete walls until their heads bled.
Typically, dolphins are trained using operant conditioning, also known as positive reinforcement, a method developed by clicker training queen, Karen Prior. Primarily, this involves food reward. Good behavior is rewarded. “Wrong” behavior isn’t. At SeaWorld, Clark is adamant that every dolphin gets all its fish every day, regardless of how it behaves. But he admits: “Do we use food as a positive reinforcer? Absolutely.”
“That’s a word game,” says O’Barry, “because from a dolphin’s perspective it’s food deprivation. You’re controlling them through their food, unlike Lassie who would perform simply for a pat on the head.”
Another training method is to blast them with underwater sirens (illegal) or silent dog whistles (legal) or turn your back on them (legal). “The easiest thing with dolphins basically is to just walk away from them,” says Dineley. “Dolphins don’t like being ignored.”
Greenwood and Taylor, former partners, are adamant that the food reward system is rarely abused. “In 50 years, I’ve never seen starvation used as a training method,” says Taylor, “even in the worst places.”
Yet The Sunday Times has obtained proof that in 1984 Simon Ede, a trainer at Brighton Dolphinarium later implicated in a cruelty case in Italy in 2000, systematically underfed a dolphin, which needs up to 14kg of fish per day, for 12 days. Extracts from handwritten logbook entries show a dolphin being ruthlessly controlled through food.
11 Feb: Baby bad. Not interested in shows. Cut fish to 3,5lb
12 Feb: Total shut down on first two shows…Either Silver is stopping her from working or she’s having us on. See what happens when she’s hungry. No fish.
13 Feb: Baby refused to work on all shows. Fish consumed 3lb
Over the next four days, the dolphin was fed 4lb, 3lb, 4 3/4lb, 2,5lb. On 18 Feb the dolphin apparently capitulates and does the double ring, hurdle, handshake, backstroke, ball balance and sings.
The trainer notes: “She is looking a little thin but that is to be expected as I’ve cut her food consumption down. Will have to be raised again soon. Fish consumed 4lb.”
Sixteen years on, the same trainer was named in a case brought by an Italian NGO at a privately owned dolphinarium in Gardaland, Italy. There, three dolphins died in quick succession, Romeo from hepatic necrosis – amid allegations of being deprived of food to make him more docile and drugged with the hormone, Ovarid, which can be used as a behaviour modifier to control aggression; Hector from a myocardial infection; and Violetta, a pregnant dolphin, from a broken spine.
Greenwood was called in when Violetta developed a lump on her back. “It was perfectly obvious to me that the animal was paralysed.” He gave her a painkiller and was arranging a CT scan when she died. The post mortem, which he did with two local vets, concluded that Violetta had a “classic, textbook whiplash injury. She had fractured a vertebrae in some movement.”
“There’s no way to say because nobody actually saw it happen,” says Greenwood, who is convinced it was an accident. He felt the court case against the park was unjust. Violetta was in excellent condition and the trio of deaths were pure bad luck. According to him, there are recorded instances of wild dolphins suffering broken spines after they’ve been overdoing things. “She certainly had not been externally hit and nobody had damaged her.”
Italian magistrates disagreed, fining the park 50 million lire.
Research by Emory University scientists shows that even dolphins in large, well-run facilities in tightly regulated EU and US parks “suffer elevated levels of stress hormones, which impacts their immune system, exhibit behavioral stereotypes and self-mutilating behaviors typical of other captive animals and mentally-disturbed people, and are often hyper-aggressive.”
Taylor agrees that dolphins can become depressed in isolated, boring environments, but doubts they could be driven to suicide. “Never seen it, don’t believe in it.”
However, Dr Marino, who in 2001 led a groundbreaking study proving that dolphins recognize themselves in a mirror, does. Dolphins’ brains are larger than those of humans and second only to ours in terms of size to body mass. Her research proves they have a sophisticated capacity for emotion, can anticipate, monitor, organize, plan for the future, and are intensely self-aware. Dolphins are also voluntary breathers; they have to consciously breathe.
“The behavioral, cognitive, neurological and physiological evidence suggests that it is possible that dolphins possess the ability to end their own lives,” says Marino. In other words, they simply choose to stop breathing.
Both Cartlidge, who witnessed two dolphins euthanize a third (later found to have advanced liver disease) by pinning it to the bottom of the pool, and O’Barry, whose beloved dolphin, Cathy, the main dolphin playing Flipper, “died of a broken heart” in his arms, are convinced that dolphins take their own lives.
“I see it almost every day in Taiji in the Cove,” says O’Barry. “Many of them commit suicide. “They take a breath and don’t take another one.”
This is the reality that the marketeers of the multibillion dollar dolphin swim industry would rather you didn’t know about: Flipper committed suicide.
The dolphin’s smile is also its curse. Almost without exception experts agree that its upturned mouth is a trompe d’oeil. “It’s an optical illusion, and this multibillion dollar industry is based on that illusion,” says O’Barry. “They brainwash the public into thinking the dolphins actually enjoy doing this job.”
This physiological anomaly is co-opted by everyone from the criminals to Lesueur as proof of the dolphins’ complicity in our obsession. The dolphins, by their very cuteness, do nothing to help their own cause. At the poolside in Athens they clamour for our attention, clicking, chattering and making faces, and rolling over in apparent ecstasy to have their bellies rubbed.
To Attica Zoo’s owner, Lesueur, it is in fact O’Barry, and people like Greek Green Party animal welfare coordinator, Olga Kikou, doing the brainwashing. They are among the many people he blames for the farcical legal situation he now finds himself in, one proving the weakness and utter unworkability of current EU cetacean legislature.
A passionate animal lover, who prior to opening Attica ten years ago was a publisher best known for bringing Playboy to Greece, Lesueur saw nothing wrong with building a dolphinarium and importing four dolphins on a ten-year-lease from the Lithuanian Sea Museum last March. As he saw it, he was doing them a kindness. They were living in a pool half the size of his (small)18 by 38m one, in green, chlorinated water drawn from the polluted Baltic. Attica’s four interlocking pools are oxygenated, enriched with natural salt and filtered every four hours.
Dolphins which perform “educational shows” twice a day (illegally, according to the authorities) for E3 per person, eat their way through 5000 imported herring a month, plus mackeral, sprat and other fish. They have routine blood tests and Lesueur has invested in a E38,000 androscope in case they swallow anything.
In June, the Lithuanians called, desperate for help. Their water treatment system had broken down and would have to be refurbished. Would he take another seven dolphins for a year? Lesueur claims that it was only after the new dolphins arrived that all hell broke loose, something Kikou contradicts. He was told that their CITES documentation was incorrectly written in Lithuanian and fined E500,000 for building the dolphinarium without permission – permission he insists was not needed.
On 6 December, the dolphins were confiscated by the Forestry Ministry, but because there’s no other viable facility in which to put them, they have to stay where they are – at Lesueur’s expense.
Not surprisingly he and the Lithuanians, who pay for the upkeep of their seven and are suing for their return, are apoplectic.
“The law is very clear,” shouts Lesueur. “You want to seize the dolphins, take them and pay for their care. Pay for them. Well, of course who is going to pay in Greece? They don’t have a Euro in their bank. You know what’s the cost is for 11 dolphins? It’s close to E1m a year. It’s huge.”
Like Clark at SeaWorld Discovery Cove, he sees no correlation between his efforts to promote conservation through captivity – a strategy condemned by Born Free which points to countries like China and Japan as proof that dolphinariums in no way lead to a reduction in dolphin slaughter, quite the opposite – and the horrors depicted by documentaries like The Cove.
“I’m the first to condemn the Cove. It’s a Japanese tradition, but how can it be allowed? Some of the dolphins that are not killed are traded. This is absolutely unacceptable. I’ve signed petitions against it. Twelve dolphins are sent to Dubai and three months later there are only six left. This is disgusting. Cuba and the Solomon Islands, they catch dolphins in the wild and send them to countries like Mexico which have no legislation. I hate it. But this has nothing to do with us. We are not people who generate the Cove activities. We are within EU legislation, within zoo legislation, we have only dolphins born in captivity. I condemn wild caught dolphins one hundred per cent.”
Tom and Misha’s former Russian owner was equally adamant that he adored his charges. When British expatriate journalist, Jane Akatay, broke the story of their plight last May in the Hürriyet Daily News, she expressed concern that they might be affected by noise from nearby nightclubs and traffic.
“They don’t hear these sounds,” Kuznetzov assured her. “They only hear the sonar that they themselves emit. They don’t experience any problems from vibrations either. After all, the Russian and American armies use dolphins to place mines and the dolphins don’t mind at all.”
What the dolphins at Attica and Tom and Misha in Turkey have in common is Cold War links. Ten of the Lithuanian dolphins were sired by dolphins used in the Ukrainian military programme at Sevastopol and the 11th was wild caught in Russian waters. Tom and Misha were caught in 2006 in a one-off capture authorized by the Turkish authorities, supposedly for use in dolphin therapy, but, as the above email testifies, with Crimean mafia involvement. There is no suggestion that the Turkish Government had any knowledge of this.
O’Barry has a name for the victims of the multi-billion dollar trade in live cetaceans, which the WDCS say is being driven by Russia, Cuba, Japan and the Solomon Islands: “Blood dolphins,” as in blood diamonds. “Flipper was a blood dolphin.”
At the height of the Cold War the Russian and US militaries had at least 100 dolphins each (the Americans still have a similar number), primarily trained to protect naval ports and search for submerged objects such as undersea mines. These dolphins suffered a catalogue of abuse. The Russian ones were kept in cages and regularly parachuted into a lake from a height of 3kms for training exercises.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, all except 20 dolphins, now kept at the Ukrainian Military Oceanarium in Sevastopol, were dispatched to unregulated travelling shows. O’Barry, who puts their original number at 500, has rescued them from Vietnam, Peru and Israel. Far from the ocean, they spend the majority of their time in miniscule holding pools or in slings, sprayed with water, unable to swim.
Russian expertise in handling them was soon put to financially beneficial use as former KGB agents turned businessmen began trafficking dolphins. Dr Alexei Birkun, a Black Sea marine mammal expert and medical researcher on captive dolphins in Russian military oceanariums from 1982-86, confirms that Russia led the global trade in bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales throughout the 90s.
“More than 20 countries were involved in this trade as importers. The exporters were two or three Russian ‘businesses.’”
Overtly this trade collapsed in 2002 when Russia implemented temporary legislation, but with dolphins fetching up to $200,000 (one animal in a well-placed park can earn $1m a year) and orcas up to $1m all evidence suggests that the trade has merely been driven underground.
A Russian dolphin dealer driven out of business by organized crime told Cartlidge: “Every single commercial dolphin company in Russia is now run by the mafia.”
Dolphins can also be violent, biting, raking, ramming or tail slapping when they’re stressed. Human-dolphin interactions have resulted in broken bones, internal injuries, rashes, stomach conditions and even death. Dolphins can carry salmonella.
While serious, these things pale in comparison to the events of SeaWorld Orlando on February 24 2010 when, following a lunchtime “Shamu” show, vivacious blonde trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, lay beside the pool and caressed Tillikum, a six ton, 22 foot killer whale. Moments later, a horrified crowd watched as he plucked her into the water by her ponytail and thrashed her around. The water turned crimson as SeaWorld staff fought to free her. The cause of death was drowning and traumatic injuries to her spine, ribs and head. When Tili’s jaw was prized open, Brancheau’s arm fell out. Astonishingly, Tilikum had been involved in two previous deaths.
SeaWorld was fined $75,000 for health & safety violations. “If you or I went out into the wild and brought a tiger or lion onto private property and it killed somebody, we’d be jailed for criminal negligence,” O’Barry says. “They get a slap on the wrist.”
Like dolphins, killer whales are sold as fun-loving cutie-pies who enjoy nothing more than turning somersaults and residing in pools barely two and a half times their body length. In actuality, they are the only natural predator of the largest mammal on earth, the blue whale, and responsible for a catalogue of serious or fatal attacks on trainers - over 40 since 1968 say the WDCS.
Nearly a year on, staff at SeaWorld are still reeling from the incident, at a loss to explain how a much-loved orca turned on one of the best trainers in the business. “There was nothing that indicated that there was any stress in his environment that caused that to happen,” says Clark.
How about the pressure of performance or the size of his pool?
“Some of the initial reports had almost anthromorphic kind of deta