A new entertainment park opened near Antalya, Turkey during the summer of 2016. The park offers rollercoaster thrill rides, the latest in water slides and nighttime musical boat parades. The entertainment park is part of a swanky Las Vegas style giant hotel in the Rixos chain, a mix of Ceasars Palace and the Venetian.
Between the hotel and the entertainment park there is a shopping avenue along a Venice-inspired canal with some eateries. Gondola rides are on offer, but there is one aspect missing: the guests.
When I visited in September 2016 there were no shoppers, barely any tourists. Most people visiting the entertainment section where there because of the waived entrance fee and free rides from other hotels in the Rixos chain. Additional tourists were bussed in from the sparsely populated resorts along the coast.
Tourism in Turkey is suffering. There are some local Turkish visitors, some Middle-Eastern guests and the first Russians returning since Russian president Putin and Turkish president Erdogan recently smoothed over the incident in which the Turks shut down a Russian jet over the border with Syria that led to Putin banning all tourist flights to Turkey.
Westerners are en masse staying away after the failed or staged, depending on who you ask, coup attempt of July and the ongoing radical-Islam and separatist-Kurd inspired bombings and attacks. The Germans, Dutch and other Europeans that do visit mostly arrive on bargain deals and hide inside the gates and walls of their all-inclusive resorts.
Eleven of these belong to the Rixos chain that currently operates 27 hotels worldwide; besides the Turkish ones, four in Kazakhstan, three in both the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, two in Russia and one in Croatia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Switzerland respectively. Rixos Hotels was established in the year 2000 in Antalya and Land of Legends is their flagship.
Even though Land of Legends does not seem to be off to a good start, what, unfortunately, always, no matter what turmoil there is in the world, seems to attract tourists is captive animals. The Land of Legends houses a lonely tiger; you can snorkel with rays and for a fee you can meet up-close with a couple of Humboldt penguins (this is an area with 50 degrees Celsius Summer temperature peaks!)
The stars of the Land Of Legends and its heaviest advertised tourist magnet, however, are the five bottlenose dolphins.
It was first reported on a South Korean news site in late October 2015 that Five Taiji-caught dolphins imported by Geoje Sea World into South Korea, would be re-exported to Antalya, Turkey. The developing story, however, shows how difficult it is to follow the shady dealings in the captive dolphin trade.
The four females and one male at Geoje were originally captured in Taiji’s infamously cruel drive hunt in 2013 and were purchased by Geoje Sea World from Japan in 2013 and 2014. Summer 섬머, a female, was captured January 2013 and transferred to Geoje Sea World on May 15, 2013; a male named Seti 세티 and three females Nova 노바, Chemba 쳄바 and Octa 옥토 were captured September 6, 2013 and transferred to Korea on April 9, 2014, according to Ceta Base, the organization that keeps track of cetacean transfers inside the world of dolphin captivity.
The story was that Geoje Sea World had opened its doors in April 2014 with around 20 cetaceans offering dolphin shows, swim-with-the-dolphins programs and dolphin encounters. When the facility ran into financial difficulties, it decided to sell off some of its dolphins to Turkey.
They were supposedly moved to Turkey on an unknown date around the end of November or in early December 2015. According to the Korean press Seti, Nova, Chemba and Octa were 4 to 5 years old at the time and Summer 5 to 6 years old.
Then, in the first week of September the Korean anti-captivity organisation Hotpinkdolphins (핫핑크돌핀스) reported that a Korean journalist had confirmed that the five bottlenose dolphins were still at Geoje Sea World!
Ceta Base responded that the updated information they had received from a source in Turkey is that the 5 dolphins at Land of Legends are Pacific bottlenoses from Taiji, but appear to be the dolphins originally bought by Friguia Park in Tunisia, not South-Korean Geoje.
Friguia Park started their dolphin circus enterprise in January 2010 with 6 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins imported from Indonesia. These animals were reportedly caught in the Solomon Islands and then bought by Taman Safari in Indonesia. Two of the animals died within 8 months after arriving in Tunisia and another three between August 2010 and November 2012. The park transferred their last surviving Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, Rita, to Ocean Park Hong Kong in November 2012.
On April 10, 2011 the park had, however, imported 5 Pacific bottlenose dolphins from Japan so the show could go on and they actually managed to keep the dolphins alive.
Then, on May 31, 2016, Friguia Park placed the following announcement on their Facebook site:
“Dear Friguia Parc friends and followers, It is with much sadness and a heavy heart that we inform you of the departure of our dolphins. Unfortunately, due to the current economic situation and the lack of tourism, which Friguia depends on, we are unable to fund the upkeep of the dolphinarium. As always at Friguia Parc, the health and well being of our animals is of upmost importance to us. We hope you understand this very difficult decision, and will still come and support us.”
Tunisia’s tourism industry, like the one in Turkey, suffers from the fallout of terrorism attacks and the resulting drop in visitor numbers.
No information was disclosed on the whereabouts of the 5 Taiji dolphins or when they were moved.
A quick check of Tripadvisor reviews of Friguia Park showed that the dolphins were still at Friguia in Febuary 2016: “One of the most wonderful places I have visited. The dolphins show is fascinating. I took a photo cheering one dolphin outside the pool. We enjoyed the lionsea show. We also took a photo holding one. You can ride camels there.”
By June 2016, however, the dolphins were gone: “Park is poorly maintained. There were no dolphins. And if you want to take picture with animal is 10 dinnars (5 euros). There was sea lion show which was great.”
Both quotes are ‘sic erat scriptum’.
If from Friguia Park, the dolphins are a male named Aras and 4 females named Honey, Luna, Skandi and Daisy.
The names of the Friguia dolphins do not match those I heard during the show: Nido, Kashia and Bolt (or something phonetically close), but a clip was posted on YouTube of one of the swim-with dolphins titled ‘The Land Of Legends yunus Honey’ye merhaba’. Yunus is Turkish for dolphin and Honey the name of one of the Friguia bottlenoses. The number of animals match and the timing is right. Some of the dolphins might simply have been renamed.
Whatever their origin, three dolphins have to perform one show a day at 15:00 that lasts about an hour if you include the photo opportunities with the dolphins afterwards. A walrus and two belugas are also used in the show.
The dolphin show is free to the visitors of the entertainment park; the photo ops and dolphin swim programs however carry a hefty fee and are the true moneymakers.
Although Western Europe has several dolphin circus attractions, swim with dolphin programs are usually not part of this. This provides third world nations such as Turkey with less scruples regarding dolphin welfare the opportunity to develop a financially attractive market not available to the tourists at home. Antalya is an easy destination, with direct flights, from many places in Europe, the Middle East and greater Russia.
The SWTD programs are largely the same everywhere and consist of:
Three dolphins are used throughout the day for dolphin swim programs, while the two remaining dolphins share one small round pool and the two belugas another.
At least these pools had a canvas cover providing shade, while the swim-with dolphins spent the entire day in the burning sun.
Outside of the programs with their food reward the dolphins would log on the surface in a listless state with their beaks resting against the side of the pool.
The two Arctic belugas spent most of the tropical days in their enclosure. Their segment on the show lasts only 20 minutes.
Back in his or her pen, one of the belugas was frantically spyhopping, screaming out in what could only be interpreted as frustration and boredom. A ‘beluga up-close’ and ‘beluga encounter’ program is on offer, but the melon-headed gentle giants somehow seem to lack the attraction the bottlenoses offer and during the long day I spent watching the procedures there were no takers.
The origin of the belugas is unknown to me, but taking into account the nationality of the show’s trainers and the only wild source of belugas in recent years, the guess would be: Russian-caught in the Sea of Okhotsk.
The two lonely bottlenose dolphins were used once for a quick dry encounter called ‘dolphin up-close tour’ with a family with small children during which the dolphins had to levitate out of the water for a hand-flipper shake. The meet and greet was short but the dolphins were eager to participate for the food reward.
Other interactions advertized on the website are the ‘dolphin encounter’, which takes place in shallow water with beached dolphins and a ‘Dolphin Private Interaction Program’.
A full ‘golden ticket’ dolphin swim package costs almost 600 TL or more than US$200.
The trainers are not Turkish. The majority is Russian as was the musical entertainment around the show and a large percentage of the visitors; the presentation on the other hand was in the hands of, my guess, an American woman.
Some Mexican trainers were mixed in at the dolphin swim pool including the man that seemed to be in charge.
Most trainers clearly ‘love’ the dolphins, but it is a relationship of absolute power versus overwhelming dependence. One activist once compared it to the ‘love’ a pedophile ‘feels’ for the child it abuses.
The trainers’ job, income & probably some form of status depend on the continuous, daily, all-day exploitation of their dolphin slaves.
I assume that very few of the attendants asked themselves the question where these dolphins came from. I doubt very many of the tourists present would recognize the name Taiji or would have heard about the drive hunt and the dolphin slaughter.
The million-dollar question is: if they knew, would they care? If educated on where these dolphins come from, what suffering got them here, what happened to these dolphins’ families, would they still go and see the show?