Marineland: past its use-by date

One of human­it­ies more ana­chron­istic activ­it­ies of the day is the con­tinu­ation of keep­ing ceta­cea (dol­phins and whales) in con­crete pools in order to train them, an activ­ity which became fash­ion­able back in the 1940s. In essence it is no dif­fer­ent from the old attempts to sat­isfy human curi­os­ity by means of per­form­ing anim­als in miser­able trav­el­ling cir­cuses or show­men with their piti­ful dan­cing bear acts.

Insti­tu­tions such as Mar­ine­land are no longer jus­ti­fied, although those with a ves­ted interest will no doubt try to argue oth­er­wise. There are those who claim that Mar­ine­land per­forms a worth­while edu­ca­tion and con­ser­va­tion role. If this is so, why do all major con­ser­va­tion organ­isa­tions vehe­mently oppose the prac­tice of keep­ing dol­phins in cap­tiv­ity? Cous­teau Soci­ety, Forest and Bird, World Wide Fund for Nature, Born Free Found­a­tion, Green­peace, Pro­ject Jonah, RSPCA and even Flipper’s ori­ginal trainer all oppose the keep­ing of dol­phins and other mar­ine mam­mals in cap­tiv­ity. The late Jacques Cous­teau went so far as to state that the prac­tice of keep­ing anim­als such as dol­phins in cap­tiv­ity is actu­ally anti-educational. Some will argue that it is okay to keep cap­tive bred dol­phins as opposed to wild caught anim­als, but the issue still remains — we are keep­ing “wild” as opposed to “domest­ic­ated” anim­als in cap­tiv­ity for our entertainment.

The work­ings of this industry are shrouded in secrecy, partly because the exploit­a­tion of dol­phins in amuse­ment parks depends on the public’s belief that the anim­als are happy in their cap­tiv­ity — des­pite a wealth of evid­ence to the con­trary. This is an illu­sion care­fully nur­tured by the industry’s pub­lic rela­tions experts and oth­ers with ves­ted interest. It is cer­tainly a bonus for the industry that dol­phins have a dis­tinct­ive upward-curving mouth, giv­ing a decept­ive impres­sion to the pub­lic that the animal is smil­ing. Even a dead dol­phin looks like it’s smiling!

A photo of a dolphin at Marineland NZ sticking its head above the water

We no longer tol­er­ate the keep­ing of lions, an animal which may spend up to 20 hours a day sleep­ing, in any­thing less than a safari park. Why is it then, that we still accept the keep­ing of dol­phins, an animal con­tinu­ally on the move which may swim over 100 kilo­metres a day, in a 30 metre long pool?

Accord­ing to stat­ist­ics provided by the U.N.‘s Food and Agri­cul­tural Organ­isa­tion (FAO) dol­phins in the wild live up to 30 – 40 years, yet the aver­age life expect­ancy in cap­tiv­ity is 5.3 years. When we con­tac­ted the man­ager of Napier’s Mar­ine­land, to request Marineland’s dol­phin stat­ist­ics, we were told he didn’t know and that we would have to talk to one of the employ­ees! Even­tu­ally we were referred to Napier’s Tour­ism Ser­vices Ltd’s (TSL) man­ager who told us, “we are not giv­ing those fig­ures out because Mar­ine­land is under review.”

Why is this inform­a­tion not freely avail­able to the pub­lic? Mar­ine­land is a pub­lic issue, to the point where at least one city coun­cil­lor has stated that the pub­lic mood will have a major bear­ing on the final out­come of the review. If this is the case why is it the pub­lic don’t have free access to all the facts? We can hardly make an informed decision without them. You would think that with the rel­at­ively old age of Marineland’s cur­rent dol­phins, Kelly and Shona, Marineland’s aver­age life expect­ancy rat­ing would be much higher than the inter­na­tional aver­age. Quite the oppos­ite. Pre­vi­ous reports show that close to 80 dol­phins have been caught by Mar­ine­land since it was opened in 1965, now there remains only two sur­viv­ing dol­phins held in cap­tiv­ity. (Aust Sen­ate Com­mit­tee Report) (Mar­ine Mam­mal Invent­ory Report)

Even those who sup­port Mar­ine­land agree that big­ger pools are cur­rently needed. On top of this any impor­ted dol­phins will have to be the more pop­u­lar bot­tlen­ose vari­ety, which are more than twice the size of the com­mon dol­phins presently being held. The cost of try­ing to bring Marineland’s pools up to some kind of accept­able stand­ard would be extremely pro­hib­it­ive. One of the reas­ons dol­phins are no longer kept in Bri­tain is because of this pro­hib­it­ive cost. And who is to say there is an accept­able stand­ard? We couldn’t come close to rep­lic­at­ing the dol­phins nat­ural habitat.

The fact that Napier City Coun­cil (NCC) is even dis­cuss­ing the pos­sib­il­ity of import­ing more dol­phins from over­seas to per­petu­ate the ana­chron­ism which is Mar­ine­land is dif­fi­cult to under­stand. It is under­stood that Marineland’s con­tro­ver­sial ‘Swim with the Dol­phins’ pro­gramme is a money spin­ner for Mar­ine­land. Apart from the danger of trans­mit­ting dis­ease, the instances of injur­ies to swim­mers would be greatly increased in the pres­ence of the much lar­ger, more aggress­ive bot­tlen­ose dol­phin. One former curator/head trainer at Sea Life Park, Hawaii has stated that she does not under­stand how a swim par­ti­cipant has not yet been killed.

And where are these dol­phins going to come from? We sus­pect USA would be the most likely source. An organ­isa­tion called The Coali­tion Against The United States Export­ing Dol­phins (C.A.U.S.E.D.) and its two and a half mil­lion mem­bers might have some­thing to say about that. Oppos­i­tion will not just be local voices in the wind.

There remains some urgent ques­tions for NCC and the pub­lic of Napier:
Is Napier eco­nom­ic­ally depend­ent on Mar­ine­land in any way? And, if so, what is going to take it’s place? Has the NCC thought about what it might do to help the cur­rent employ­ees when Mar­ine­land is inev­it­ably closed down?

And most urgent of all, does Napier, indeed does New Zea­l­and, wish to con­tinue being party to the con­fine­ment of these grace­ful, wild creatures for the sake of our own per­verse entertainment?

Update: Mar­ine­land was closed to the pub­lic on 11 Septem­ber 2008 fol­low­ing the passing of Kelly, Marineland’s last remain­ing dolphin.

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