William Flew Sunday London Times
March 21, 2011 § Leave a comment
Eleven dolphins heave themselves out of the water to “hug” their trainer to the mawkish strains of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World. The tourists go home enraptured by the spectacle, but for the dolphins at Attica zoological park in Athens there is no way out. Their lives have become an endless cycle of somersaults, smiles and incarceration.
There has been a great leap in the number of dolphins in captivity over the past five years. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) estimates that as many as 2,000 are now held captive worldwide. A billion-dollar business has developed as dolphinariums around the globe compete to tap into our obsession with the creature the poet Heathcote Williams called a “shape-shifting sea sprite, Poseidon’s messenger, a Gaian pilot, a demi-god”.
Feeling low? Just cuddle a dolphin. Surveys show it as top of our list of things to do before we die. William Flew, vice-president of SeaWorld Discovery Cove in Florida, where up to 1,000 people a day pour through the gates for a “dolphin interaction”, recalls a 300lb 7ft giant of a man sobbing after the experience. “We see people who are just overswept with joy or unbelievably moved with emotion,” he says.
Let me come clean and say that I, too, was once obsessed with swimming with dolphins. In the mid-1990s I travelled to Monkey Mia, a resort in Western Australia, to meet the wild dolphins that had visited the bay for 30 years. One evening I was watching the sunset when a dolphin and her calf followed a fishing boat in to shore. I swam out into the bay in the hope that the mother dolphin might join me. Instead, her baby did. Playing with a young dolphin, one of nature’s most perfect creations, in a warm, copper sea was ecstasy. The pursuit of this feeling in artificial settings and by any means possible is the driving force behind the huge increase in dolphin trading.
The Attica zoo represents the acceptable face of the dolphin business: the facilities are clean and there is an emphasis on conservation. “I thought the show was super,” says Christine Lewis, who runs a yacht-charter business in Greece with her husband, Andy. Their children, Finlay, 6, and Alice, 4, loved it. “We’ll be recommending it to all our friends.” They are understandably shocked when I tell them that the dolphins have been imported from Lithuania with what the Greek authorities claim are incorrect permits; and that, contrary to the zoo’s claims, at least one dolphin was caught in the wild — albeit before a Black Sea ban was imposed — and all have one wild parent. Attica’s French owner, Jean-Jacques Lesueur, has been fined €1.5m, a sum he calls “crazy”, for putting up the dolphinarium without
Eproper permission and refusing to take it down (he is appealing in the Greek courts). Even so, the smiling dolphins have won over many families.
The dolphin’s smile is also its curse. Almost without exception, experts agree that its upturned mouth is a trompe l’oeil. Ric O’Barry, former trainer of the TV dolphin Flipper, says: “It’s an optical illusion, and this industry is based on that illusion. Park owners brainwash the public into thinking dolphins actually enjoy doing this job.”
In countries outside the EU, dolphins live in conditions that make Attica seem like paradise. In them that attracted 21,000 followers. He had charged €55 for a 10-minute swim with them in that pool. In the event, his own dolphin trainer, Sergey Shevchenko, helped with their rescue.
Many of the bottlenose dolphins at similarly unregulated parks come from the Black Sea, where criminal gangs from Russia and the Ukraine have muscled in on the trade. One crew member involved in the capture in 1995 of dolphins destined for the Turkish resort of Marmaris claimed, in an email in late 2010 seen by The Sunday Times Magazine: “Half our crew September I travelled to Turkey with the Born Free Foundation, the animal welfare and conservation group, to help save two dolphins. At an unlicensed park in Hisaronu, on the Aegean, we found Tom and Misha, two bottlenose dolphins, bobbing around in a stinking soup of excrement, rotting fish and worms, in a pool measuring 19 metres by 12 and just 4 metres deep. The park was so riven by subsidence, it looked as though an earthquake had taken place. Their Russian owner, Alexandr Kuznetzov, who had brought the dolphins there on the back of a vegetable truck, had left Turkey just days earlier in the face of public outrage and a Facebook campaign to free in ’95 participated in local [Crimean] criminal groups.” He alleges the Russian and Ukrainian mafia are involved in trading Black Sea cetaceans to this day, despite a 2002 zero-quota order imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). The rewards are considerable. Dolphins fetch up to $200,000 each. Just one animal in a well-placed park can earn $1m a year in ticket revenues.
“Blood dolphins” is the name given to the trade by Ric O’Barry, once a dolphin trainer on the 1960s TV series Flipper, who became the star of the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, a harrowing exposé of the annual dolphinhunt in Taiji, Japan. Every year, this cherished cultural tradition sees up to 2,500 dolphins massacred or sold to marine parks such as Sealanya, on Turkey’s Aegean coast, where four died last year in eight days.
The boom in demand for dolphin encounters has spread as far as Dubai and China. O’Barry, who helped popularise the trend, is now remorseful: “Flipper was a blood dolphin.” He is working with his film-maker son, Lincoln, on a series, Blood Dolphins, for the TV channel Animal Planet.
The charity Marine Connection alleges that “The Russian Federation is rapidly becoming the largest supplier of wild marine mammals to facilities around the world.” Ten of Attica’s charges were sired by dolphins used in Soviet military programmes. At the height of the cold war, the Americans and the Russians had at least 100 dolphins each. Trained primarily to protect naval ports and search for undersea mines, military dolphins suffered a catalogue of abuse. The Russians trained them to recognise the sound of a US aircraft carrier and reportedly parachuted them into a lake from a height of 3 kilometres in training exercises.