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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