Four surviving Arizona dolphins are flown to new facility in the U.S. Virgin Islands
SCOTTSDALE, Arizona––“We’re excited to welcome four Atlantic bottlenose dolphins,” the Coral World Ocean Park in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, posted to Facebook on February 20, 2019.
“The dolphins arrived safely,” Coral World said, without saying where the four Atlantic bottlenose dolphins arrived from, “and will live in their new home at the first-of-its-kind St. Thomas Sea Sanctuary, a 69,000-square-foot open swim space in a natural ocean habitat.”
In truth the four dolphins were the last survivors of the failed Dolphinaris Arizona development in Scottsdale, a Phoenix suburb. Four other dolphins died at Dolphinaris Arizona between May 22, 2018 and January 31, 2019, among nine dolphins said by critics to have died at Dolphinaris facilities altogether during approximately the same timespan.
Two of the four dolphins now in St. Thomas, named Liko and Noelani, were sent to Dolphinaris Arizona on loan from Dolphin Quest facilities in Hawaii. Founded in 1988 by marine mammal veterinarians Jay Sweeney and Rae Stone, Dolphin Quest operates two swim-with-dolphins resorts in Hawaii and another in Bermuda.
The other two dolphins now at Coral World came from Dolphinaris swim-with-dolphins resorts in Mexico, operated by Ventura Entertainment. Three of the other dolphin deaths at Dolphinaris facilities allegedly occurred at Dolphinaris Riviera Maya; two at Dolphinaris Cozumel.
Dolphinaris Arizona sank after Dolphin Quest pull-out
A Mexican company, Ventura Entertainment claims to be “The biggest and most influential parks and attractions operator in Mexico and Latin America, with nine brands, 14 facilities, two countries, and 165 different attractions.”
Ventura Entertainment had hoped Dolphinaris Arizona would extend the company name and concept into the U.S., but pulled the plug on the dolphin tanks less than two and a half years after opening the $20 million site on the Salt River Pima/Maricopa Indian Community Reservation in October 2016.
Dolphinaris Arizona debuted with eight dolphins, in a habitat about half again the size of an Olympic swimming pool.
Two days after the death of the fourth dolphin, another sent on loan from Dolphin Quest, Dolphin Quest announced that it had “formally terminated its animal loan agreement with Dolphinaris.”
Dolphins flown out
Dolphinaris Arizona then closed “temporarily,” ostensibly for an expert review of the facilities, on February 8, 2019.
(See Dolphinaris Arizona deaths: it’s not about the desert.)
Signage identifying the buildings was taken down on February 15, 2019.
Arizona Republic reporter Lorraine Longhi, “going off a tip that dolphins were being transported” on the night of February 19, 2019, “watched from a distance,” she wrote, “as a yellow Penske truck pulled slowly into a private hangar area at Sky Harbor. Other moving trucks were already there.
“The Republic could not see dolphins,” Longhi continued, “but about a dozen people spent hours moving cargo into an Everts Air Cargo plane with what appeared to be slings, which are used in the transport of dolphins.”
“Imperative to remove animals from compromised environment”
Said Dolphin Quest cofounder Rae Stone in a prepared statement released to Longhi, “We felt it was imperative to remove the animals from what appeared to be a compromised environment at the Arizona facility. Coral World’s marine habitat promises to provide a healthy and enriching environment,” Stone said.
But the Dolphin Quest dolphins were not brought back into potential contact with any other dolphins belonging to Dolphin Quest.
And Animal Welfare Institute marine mammalogist Naomi Rose immediately called the “healthy and enriching environment” at Coral World into question.
In St. Thomas, Rose told Longhi, the four former Dolphinaris Arizona resident dolphins, “who are potentially immunocompromised, will be held in a sea pen enclosure in a bay known for its limited water circulation and poor water quality.”
Multiple causes of death
Rose cited U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Planning & Natural Resources weekly reports on water quality which “show that seven out of the 19 times that water at [the site] was analyzed, the sample was found to have levels of bacteria that made it unsafe for swimming or fishing,” Longhi wrote.
The four deceased dolphins at Dolphinaris Arizona, all of them captive-bred and kept in enclosed facilities since birth, died from at least three distinctly different causes: the fungal disease mucormycosis, bacterial infections, and the parasitic disease sarcocystis.
All can present similar symptoms, and could even all infect the same animal, if the animal suffered from a weakened immune system.
The common denominator, among captive dolphins, might be stress, rather than exposure to any one particular pathogen.
Alternatively, an unidentified pathogen could have so seriously compromised the immune systems of already stressed dolphins that they died from whatever diseases already afflicted them.
The possibility that an unidentified pathogen or stressor might have been involved was raised indirectly by a February 21, 2019 media release from Dolphin Freedom UK, an organization probably best known for embarrassing the Thomas Cook travel empire in August 2018.
After Thomas Cook announced that it would no longer offer expeditions to SeaWorld resorts, due to animal welfare concerns, Dolphin Freedom UK disclosed that Thomas Cook had just signed a deal to send tourists to the Atlantis Sanya resort in China, which exhibits bottlenose dolphins, white sided dolphins, sea lions and beluga whales.
Thomas Cook, whose founder began offering packaged tours in 1841, is the oldest and perhaps largest tour broker worldwide.
The Dolphin Freedom UK page on Facebook is managed by Alejandra Doyle, also known as AlePiña de Doyle, who writes in Spanish.
Earlier, Dolphin Freedom UK released a Report On Captive Dolphins in Mexico 2016 by Lilly Charlton, who according to her Facebook page is a resident of Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico.
Mentioning that about 372 dolphins were held in captivity in Mexico at publication, the Report On Captive Dolphins in Mexico 2016 made extensive use of information apparently obtained from Dolphinaris employees, or former employees.
“Mexico is a country with a proven poor human rights record and critical levels of corruption,” Charlton wrote. “It is also a country where organized crime activity pervades every level of civil society, governmental agencies and the judiciary, with inevitable consequences for dissenters, both political and economic. Due to potential psychological and physical pressures being put on them, we found it very hard to find employees (former or current) willing to come forward and speak to us about how the industry functions. Those willing to talk did so only under strict anonymity.”
Riviera Maya & Cozumel dolphin deaths
According to the February 21, 2019 Dolphin Freedom UK media release, “Dolphin Freedom was approached by a group of informants currently involved with the dolphinarium corporation Dolphinaris after a fifth dolphin died in under two years in Mexican locations. The fifth fatality occurred exactly one day before the fourth dolphin died in the Dolphinaris installation in Arizona.
“Dolphinaris has five dolphinarium installations in Mexico,” in Cancun, Cozumel, Riviera Maya, Tulum, and Barcelo, “and currently holds around 75 captive dolphins,” the Dolphin Freedom UK media release said.
Three of the five dolphin deaths in 19 months occurred “in the Riviera Maya tanks, and two in the Cozumel facility,” said Dolphin Freedom UK.
“According to the group of informants involved with Dolphinaris, even more deaths have taken place,” the media release continued. “However, Dolphin Freedom Mexico is unable to validate these fatalities (at present.) Dolphin Freedom has been actively monitoring Dolphinaris facilities since 2012.”
Blue, Sol, Mu & Balam
Of the five deaths about which Dolphin Freedom UK offered particulars, two were calves born at the Riviera Maya facility, one of whom had not yet been named. The other, named Blue “was only six months old. Five dolphins including Blue caught pneumonia. Blue was unable to survive it and died,” Dolphin Freedom UK recounted.
“In the Cozumel facility,” the Dolphin Freedom UK media release said, “two adolescent female dolphins both died suddenly within 20 minutes of each other. Sol and Mu, who were both seven-year-old females, suddenly stopped eating, both started to convulse, and within a short amount of time died.
“The fifth fatality was Balam, one of Dolphinaris’s oldest dolphins, aged around 40 years,” said the Dolphin Freedom UK media release. “Balam caught an infection from imported sand which was put in the installation for aesthetic purposes and tourist enjoyment. Balam was unable to survive the infection and died. After Balam’s death, Dolphinaris removed the sand from the installation.”
The Dolphinaris dolphins who were relocated to Dolphinaris Arizona had all been moved at least five months before the five dolphin deaths in 19 months at the Mexican sites occurred.
Currently unknown is whether any of the Dolphinaris Arizona dolphins were ever in contact with any of those who died in Mexico. It is possible that there is no likely causal link among the nine total dolphin deaths at Dolphinaris facilities. But it also appears to be possible that all of the dolphins might have been exposed to a pathogen of some sort that increased their vulnerability to whatever other infections they might have had.
“PROFEPA, Mexico’s environmental agency in charge of overseeing dolphinariums, has a history of not fully investigating dolphin deaths,” Dolphin Freedom UK charged. “PROFEPA’s attention to these dolphin deaths is critical.”
Alleged PROFEPA shortcomings
The Dolphin Freedom UK Report On Captive Dolphins in Mexico 2016 detailed alleged PROFEPA shortcomings in areas including investigation of the purported origins of dolphins put on exhibition, investigation of disease outbreaks, and investigation of alleged false statements made by dolphin exhibitors to media and the public.
The Dolphin Freedom UK Report On Captive Dolphins in Mexico 2016 concluded by calling for a ban on captive breeding of dolphins, a ban on “capturing dolphins from the wild for any purpose at all,” and an end to “granting licenses to open new facilities” for dolphin exhibition.
Call for accountability
The Dolphin Freedom UK Report On Captive Dolphins in Mexico 2016 acknowledged that safely releasing all of the dolphins currently in captivity could probably not be done, and that therefore some exhibition venues might have to remain open for many more years.
However, “Current inventories should be regularly available, as should birth certificates, death certificates and information on pregnancies,” author Charlton recommended.
“An independent team of investigators should be invited into the dolphinaria twice a year to monitor and inspect current practices,” Charlton added.
Finally, Charlton wrote, “Captive dolphin companies should be held accountable for misinformation they deliver.”
Jamaka Petzak says
Very discouraging. Sharing to social media, with gratitude and frustration.
Sue Palen says
Thank you for writing this story. Dolphins are sentient beings that should not be held in captivity. The tragic deaths that occurred at both locations were the result of human exploitation all in the name of “entertainment”. We should not harvest dolphins from the ocean, and we should not breed them in captivity. We should find safe sanctuaries for captive dolphins and other captive marine life. As humans, this is our obligation.