Diving Into the Dolphinarium Debate and Why I Took My Daughter

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Diving Into the Dolphinarium Debate and Why I Took My Daughter

Diving Into the Dolphinarium Debate and

As eco-conscious, Christian family travelers, we are concerned about protecting God’s creation and promote responsible travel. As a family, we have volunteered in U.S. national parks. We also have participated in the conservation and release of endangered sea turtle hatchlings  both in the U.S. and in Mexico. While visiting Japan, we learned about and took a stand against the dolphin and whale hunts in Taiji Cove. If you want to know more about this, watch the Cove.

Diving Into the Dolphinarium Debate and why

One of the commenters on our Facebook page wrote:

How could go to a dolphin pen? Don’t you believe that dolphins should be free? They are meant to be wild.

As a family we believe that all animals thrive when they are born wild and living  free–dogs, cats, horses, pigs and marine mammals.  That said, animals can be an incredible source of therapy for humans, and through education we can better understand animals, protect their habitats and preserve our wonderful planet.

With our extensive discussions on conservation and our habit of exploring animals in the wild, it was not surprising that some of our readers expressed anger over a recent mother-daughter trip that included visiting a dolphinarium.

Let’s be clear, we support foundations that exist to help prevent the extinction of animals on the endangered list such as the Iguana Project in Belize. We have had several opportunities to volunteer with conservation groups. Our son Josiah even has some of his findings in a national park museum on San Padre Island, Texas.

The issue of dolphins becomes troubling because they are not on the endangered list. There is no need to create a conservation program for them. For that reason, we wish that dolphinariums had never been established.

Dolphinariums: Here to Stay

Here’s the reality: dolphinariums exist. They are here to stay. They are a part of the multi-million dollar tourist industry. I wish there were no dolphinariums. I wish that all dophins could all go free, but is that possible?

Most conservationists believe that dolphins that have spent significant time in captivity (especially those born in captivity) will be unable to survive in the wild for multiple reasons.

Dolphins born in captivity, with constant monitoring, are potentially immunologically compromised by not having been raised in the wild. That is, they may not be immune to some illness from their wild counterparts, or they could possibly introduce new germs unfamiliar to their neighbors. This decreases the captive dolphin’s chance of survival in the wild. A captive dolphin will be vulnerably unaware of predators and will not have developed self-protective skills.

Any cetacean born or living primarily in captivity is simply not prepared for the environmental stress of being released to the wild.

Given that reality, dolphinariums are the inescapable result of having dolphins born in captivity.

Correspondingly, it appears that some wild-caught dolphins are candidates for successful release. National Geographic published a three-part series addressing  the intelligence, captivity and culture of dolphins. The second article of the series (“Born to Be Wild”, June 2015) chronicles the heart-warming rehabilitation and successful release of five wild-caught dolphins. One marine biologist, advising a release in Korea, estimated that “probably one-third of  dolphins in captivity check enough boxes to be candidates for release”.

Jeff Foster, who for fourteen years caught dolphins for SeaWorld and other marine parks, supervised the successful rehabilitation and release of a wild-caught pair. His experience on both sides of the issue of captivity gives him a balanced perspective. Foster states that

…release is a workable option for many captive dolphins…captive display–if done right–can help humans and dolphins make a positive connection…the aging captive-industry model of man-made pools and circus-style shows [should be] replaced by ocean pens with open gates.

Here’s what we know. Interaction with animals fuels the passion to protect them. Our children were all under ten when they first encountered sea turtles in the wild. After swimming with the magnificent creatures and later handling their hatchlings, they developed a lifelong desire to protect them.

While there are no perfect organizations, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks (AMMPA) holds stringent requirements for its members. There are several hundred dolphinariums worldwide, but only 58 fall within the rigorous safety and responsibility requirements for membership in AMMPA.

AMMPA members will not accept any marine mammals from fisheries. No cetaceans within the AMMPA members come from Japan. Dolphins come from sustainable, healthy populations, or are rehabilitated, injured animals. A majority of dolphins in dolphinariums with AMMPA membership were born in captivity.

The members of AMMPA promote scientific research projects in dolphin language and intelligence. That said, due to AMMPA’s support of SeaWorld we do not stand fully behind them.

Diving into the Dolphinarium Debate and Why I Took My Daughter

Learning about the gentle and magnificent dolphin.

Why We Visited

We are worldschoolers. A majority of the education that happens in our home is child interest-led.  What separates us from many unschoolers is that, by worldschooling, our children’s interest palate is broadened. They become interested in Mayan ruins, for example, when we are in a Mayan area.

Hannah is our animal lover and has been from birth. She has grown up hearing my stories of swimming near and seeing dolphins in the wild as a child growing up on the Virginia coast.

Hannah and I were visiting the breathtaking paradise on Cozumel’s island for a mother-daughter getaway celebrating her 13th birthday. For Hannah, who loves animals as much as swimming, what could be a more memorable event that spending an hour one-on-one with a dolphin?

I looked into multiple AMMPA dophinariums. I discovered that Dolphin Discovery Cozumel is the only dolphinarium in Cozumel where all dolphins were born under human care. I knew this was the park for us. Plus, the dolphins are located within Chankanaab National Reef Conservation Park. Hannah could swim with the dolphins in their natural habitat–no chlorinated pools, just the salty, turquoise water of the Caribbean.

We also appreciated Dolphin Discovery’s commitment to provide resources for universities’ marine biology programs.

Diving into the Dolphinarium Debate and Why I Took My Daughter

This front area is where the newborn dolphins freely swim. The dolphin training and dolphin encounters happen between each pier.

Our Dolphin Discovery Experience

We were greeted by an educator and dolphin trainer. Hannah was there for a one-on-one encounter. The dolphin trainer led Hannah into the dolphin’s natural habitat–the ocean.

Before Hannah began playing with the obviously well-fed and playful dolphin, her trainer spent fifteen minutes sharing a wealth of information. There is nothing like learning dolphin facts while engaging with dolphins. I am positive this education will stay with my daughter for life.

⦁ Dolphins shed the entire outer layer of their skin every two hours.
⦁ How to differentiate between genders.
⦁ Young dolphins will remain with their mother for a period of 2 or 3 years.
⦁ Dolphins, like cows, have two stomachs: one for storage and the other for digestion.
⦁ A dolphin may be able to dive up to 1,000 feet.
⦁ The dorsal fin on every dolphin is unique and can be used to identify one from another.
⦁ Dolphins can swim at a sustained speed of up to 25 miles per hour.
⦁ A group of dolphins is called a pod.

The Amazing Moments

Her favorite moments included rubbing the dolphin’s belly, learning to train the dolphin (her dolphin jumped directly in front of her several feet over her head), getting a dolphin kiss, enjoying a water fight with the dolphin (thanks to his tail, he won).

Diving into the Dolphinarium Debate and Why I Took My Daughter

First Kiss

Kisses With A Dolphin

When a dolphin kisses Hannah, she kisses him back cuz she’s sweet like that. Several trainers kept saying how natural Hannah was with the animals.. She was born this way.

Water War

Hannah having a ball playing splash with the dolphin.

The absolute most memorable highlights were a couple of belly rides. The dolphin rolled to its back, Hannah held on and the dolphin bolted through the turquoise sea.

Diving into the Dolphinarium Debate and Why I Took My Daughter

A belly ride.

Hannah then laid on a boogie board; by using his nose, the dolphin propelled her through the Caribbean Sea leaving large waves in her wake. She had the widest smile. They loved it.

Diving into the Dolphinarium Debate and Why I Took My Daughter

Bolting through the Caribbean as the dolphin uses his nose to push Hannah by her foot. She LOVED this.

Since this was low season and there were no waiting crowds, she got to do this a couple of times as well. It was as perfect as a day could be.

After some more dolphin play and a good-bye kiss, she was invited into the manatee area. There she rubbed their bellies, learned that algae is a manatee’s natural sunblock and fed the manatees a head of lettuce, watching them relish the stalk.

We were able to stay after closing hours and watch the end-of-day routine. When the tourists go home, the dolphins in Cozumel are let into a large area to play. Small fish make their way through the gates and the dolphins enjoy hunting, splashing, swimming in their pods and majestically jumping at will. It was a delightful scene to witness.

Diving into the Dolphinarium Debate and Why I Took My Daughter

A young dolphin jumps and glides through the Caribbean after the guests and trainers leave for the day. We saw a lot of tropical fish swimming in the aqua water.

Dive on In!

Dolphinariums are here to stay. If you do visit a dolphinarium, look for one that is a member with AMMPA. Find a dolphinarium where the dolphins are not living in chlorinated water. For those who choose to visit a dolphinarium, we think you will find great educational resources and a lot of fun for humans and dolphins alike. This day spent with my daughter is a memory she and I will always cherish.

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Brent and Stacey-jean Inion
Brent and Stacey-jean Inion
Brent and Stacey-jean Inion, parents of nine (including four children adopted with special needs), 2014 National Geographic Travelers of the Year and the National Geographic Travelers People's Choice Travelers of the Year. They love to laugh, to read and to explore as a family. The secret to their marital bliss is an early morning cup of freshly brewed coffee before the children awake.

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