In May 2005, Dubai Municipality announced its plan to create Dubai Marine World, estimated at 205 million Dh (United Arab Emirates Dirham; roughly divide by four to get Euros or US Dollars). It was supposed to contain a dolphinarium, a fish farm, an alligator farm, a marine research institute, a ‘delphinotherapy’ center and an aquarium containing a coral reef and was to cover a total area of 19,000 square meters at Creek Park in the heart of Dubai.
The Dubai Dolphinarium was planned as the first phase of the Dubai Marine World project to be completed by the end of 2005.
From the beginning it was said the dolphinarium would house three perfectly trained Tursiops (flipper) dolphins and two sea lions with other marine mammals joining them in the future.
In October 2007, 28 (or 30; it is still not clear if two individuals never made it onto the plane or died during the flight with their demise covered up) freshly captured bottlenose dolphins from Solomon Islands waters were loaded onto two chartered Emirates DC-10s for a 30-hour journey to Dubai. The shipment outraged anti-captivity activists as the Solomon Islands’ government had earlier banned the export of dolphins after an equally controversial shipment to Mexico. The seller, Solomon Islands Marine Mammal Education Centre and Exporters Limited, had, however, been able to get the earlier ban overturned in court.
While in Honiara, the Solomon Islands’ fisheries minister bragged that each Dubai-bound bottlenose had sold for $200,000, with the government receiving a 25 percent export tax, the news caused confusion in Dubai.
By then the dolphinarium in Creek Park had been delayed for two years and was still under construction.
Ahmed Abdul Kareem, Head of Dubai Municipality’s Public Parks Department, said: “The reports in the international media about 30 dolphins coming to Dubai are not related to the [Dubai] Dolphinarium. It is a fact that we are not buying any dolphins from the Solomon Islands. Where would we keep 30 dolphins?”
He did announce that three dolphins were being acquired for the Dubai centre, but that they would be captive-bred animals rather than wild ones.
Timur Bekemullin, managing director of Sergex Royal, Dubai municipality’s partner in Dubai Marine World, said: “We will buy three dolphins from another dolphinarium in a CIS [Commonwealth of Independent (former soviet) States] country. Specialists will take care of them. Our dolphins will not be captured from the sea, they will be third-generation captive animals.”
So, there had to be another dolphinarium project in the region. The future home of the Solomon dolphins would be Atlantis, The Palm, a $1.5 billion resort built on an artificial island called Palm Jumeirah made out of 94 million cubic meters of sand, dredged from the bottom of the Persian Gulf.
The dolphinarium at the resort, known as Dolphin Bay, opened in September 2008 in a water park next to the Atlantis hotel.
In late 2016, it was announced that another man-made island, Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island, would be the home of SeaWorld’s first theme park outside of the USA. Although it was immediately emphasized that no orcas would be moved to the park, it is still unclear if the enslavement of other dolphin species will be part of the deal. One of the reasons mentioned by commentators for this foreign move by SeaWorld is the absence of a noticeable animal rights movement in the United Arab Emirates. Time is catching up however. Recently the UAE banned endangered wildlife from being imported into the country as pets or for trade and the ownership of dangerous exotic pets such as big cats now carries heavy fines. It is just a matter of time before questions will be raised on dolphin captivity as well.
After years of delay the 33 million Dirham Dubai Dolphinarium, sponsored and supported by the Dubai government, opened on May 21, 2008. It covers 5000 square meters with a 1250-seat indoor arena. The show pool, a 26 meters wide half circle, is 5.5 meters deep. The 600 cubic meters dolphin holding/training tank is connected to the main arena pool by a barred gate. There is a separate medical pool and a seal pool. The entire facility is air-conditioned and indoors as temperatures in the Arabian desert get brutally hot. The dolphins have never breathed fresh outside air since they arrived. The only time the dolphins get to experience real daylight is through the windows of the Swim-with pool.
The water is about 21 degrees Celsius and filtered from the creek outside.
The other phases of Dubai Marine World never materialized and after only 8 years the Dubai Dolphinarium has started to crumble.
The dolphin therapy plans were still mentioned at the time of opening. There was even talk of flying in ‘experts’ from Mexico. In October 2007, Bekemullin said: “We hope the project will be ready in two months. Our focus is on education and dolphin therapy for children. In many dolphinariums, there is a long waiting list for this therapy and we hope the facility will be available to UAE residents.” It never came about. And, as in other marine parks around the world, neither did the education part.
Dolphin slavery is about entertainment. This is made absolutely clear in the Dubai Dolphinarium where vendors travel up and down the arena stairs selling popcorn.
Still Dubai Dolphinarium claims to attract 30,000 visitors per month.
The ‘interactive’ dolphin shows was held from the beginning twice daily from Monday to Thursday and three times a day on weekends.
When the project was first announced in 2005, animal welfare campaigners raised concerns about the cruelty of keeping dolphins in captivity.
Mohammad Al Fardan, head of promotions and recreational office at Dubai Municipality was quick to point out that “[t]hese dolphins are not captured from the sea. They are second generation trained dolphins. There is a lot of cruelty facing marine life like whale and dolphin hunting. We are conserving these animals and educating our children.”
Soon Dubai Dolphinarium would be complicit with this dolphin hunting and profiting from it.
The original three dolphins were acquired from the Karadag Biostation in Crimea, Ukraine: a 22-year old male named Senya, Ksuysha, a 20-year old female and Marfa, 16, also female. They are Black Sea bottlenose dolphins that are listed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as the endangered subspecies: Tursiops truncatus ponticus.
Alexander Zanin, who had bought Ksyusha and Senya in 1997 and worked for 30 years in Karadag, moved with the dolphins to Dubai in 2007 and became head marine mammal specialist at the Dubai Dolphinarium.
But where did the third dolphin come from? Despite the ‘third-generation’ assurances, it was rumored that Marfa was rescued after being captured in a gill net in the Black Sea; therefore she was not born in captivity, but a rescue and should have been released after rehabilitation.
Christopher Richardson, the first managing director of Dubai Dolphinarium, at the time of the opening admitted that Marfa, had gotten stuck in a fishing net in Ukraine waters and was rescued. “Even the four seals were for slaughter. But our marine specialist managed to negotiate saving them,” he said, in an attempt to portray the Dubai Dolphinarium animals as rescues instead of entertainment industry slaves.
Richardson changed his tune after the criticism grew: “These are third generation dolphins who were born in artificial conditions and don’t know what it’s like to be in the wild.”
Marfa died in 2009, but the issue of wild-caught dolphins at the Dubai Dolphinarium didn’t die with her.
Four new dolphins – Tetka, 15, female; Fekla, 15, female; Bubbles, 7, female and Jerry, 5, male – had landed at Dubai Airport in early October 2008. This time the new arrivals were destined for Dubai Dolphinarium. They were all Pacific bottlenose dolphins and were flown in from Japan. All four dolphins, even though they were kept at a Japanese facility in the year before the transfer, were originally caught in the infamously cruel drive hunt of Taiji.
Dubai Dolphinarium had betrayed their claim not to take dolphins from the wild and since then the dolphins origins were simply ignored.
While the uninformed public might have been unaware of the horrors in these dolphins’ history, everybody working at Dubai Dolphinarium at the time of course knew: managing director Christopher Richardson, general manager Steve Preston, animal ‘trainers’ Tommy Wilken and Traill Stocker, ‘educator’ Michelle Moodley, marketing manager Samantha Watson, and all the others willing to sell their souls for Emirate money.
Bubbles died in 2009 and Dubai Dolphinarium now has 6 dolphins: The original Ukrainian Black Sea bottlenoses Senya and Ksyusha, Taiji survivors Jerry, Tetka and Fekla, and newborn Kai.
A first dolphin calf was born at Dubai Dolphinarium on 10-10-‘10, from mother Ksyusha and father Senya, but died of a heart attack two months later, resulting from “improper prenatal development of the heart and lungs”, on December 16.
The calf was Ksyusha’s fifth. While two are alive and performing in dolphinariums in the Ukraine, the other three didn’t survive more than six months. One died within a week of birth, the other lived half a year, and now this one, gone at just two months.
After a 12-month gestation period, Senya and Ksyusha became parents again on May 28, 2012. The baby-boy popped out tail first, weighing 9.5 kilograms and measuring 1 meter in length. The ‘baby’ was showcased for the first time when the dolphinarium celebrated its fifth anniversary in May 2013. Almost a year old then, 40kg and 1.20 meters long, the dolphin-boy was named Kai. Now 4 years old, Kai is still alive. He has had to ‘perform’ for his food almost his entire life. Dolphins are the only ‘zoo animals’ that have to work to get fed. Tommy Wilken, the animal trainer from South Africa (Durban’s Sea World) who also worked briefly at the Atlantis resort before joining Dubai Dolphinarium, justified it this way: “It is important that you let dolphins investigate, work for their food – it prevents boredom and keeps them stimulated. They prefer working for their food.” If you care about their preferences why not try freedom!
At Dubai Dolphinarium you can get very close to the dolphins for a price. On offer is a ‘Dolphin Meet & Greet’. From the side of the dolphin pool you can kiss, hug & even dance with the dolphins without getting wet.
The ‘Up Close & Personal With Dolphins’ package offers shallow water interactions “to interact with the dolphins in their environment. Guests are only in water up to knee height & are under trainer supervision whilst they are able to touch, dance, sing, play ball and watch high energy behaviours from the dolphins.”
Finally the ‘Majestic Dolphin Swim’ allows you to “
[e]njoy a dorsal fin tow or belly ride as well as being able to hug, kiss & dance with these incredible mammals. You will be under the guidance of expert trainers who will be delighted to tell you more about the dolphins behaviours, natural habitats & more.”
Private experiences are available upon request, of course for a special price.
Dolphin & Seal shows are daily except 11am Sunday. The Illusion, Dolphin & Seal Shows are at 6pm Sunday to Thursday and 3pm & 6pm Friday & Saturday, the weekend in the Islamic world.
The evening show started with French illusionist Max Stevenson, followed by a slapstick sketch at the edge of the pool and some Circe-de-Soleil-light acrobatics over the pool. They performed for a mostly empty room for a meagre applause, but no matter how dissatisfying, they choose themselves to be there; the other ‘performers of the evening did not.
The ‘human’ show was followed by a tiny northern fur seal, named Maria, who had to do flipper stands, ball juggling, roll-overs, dance and hugs and kisses with her Brazilian trainer Luna.
Surrealistically, the announcement of the seal act was accompanied by footage on the big screen over the stage of wild sea lions and wild dolphins, radiating joy, while surfing huge waves. I think I was the only one in the audience grasping the utter madness and stunning contrast of these wide-screen images of free life in the wild and the poor little fur seal doing tricks on stage in return for thawed fish scraps.
At the show that I visited the public of a mere 200 persons in the 1250-seat arena, consisted of a few Arab families, two or three western couples and a large number of families from the Indian subcontinent who make up the majority of the workforce in the UAE.
Before the show started it was announced that you could purchase a numbered ‘lucky draw’ ball for 20 Dh only. During the show you could go down to the side of the pool, throw the ball into the water and when one of the dolphins retrieves the ball with your number on it you’d win a stuffed dolphin toy or a photo shoot with the dolphins.
During the show the dolphins perform a standard set of tricks, the same everywhere that trainers like to call ‘behaviors’, as in ‘an extension of their natural behaviors’.
Fetching and ‘throwing’ balls, serve as surfboard for a trainer, push and pull the trainers through the water and lift them out of the pool onto the stage, hula-hoop around the rostrum, jumps towards balls, over bars, through hoops … you have seen it all before … and there is little to none natural behavior at all.
One dolphin, Taiji-kidnapped Fekla, got a pencil shoved into her mouth to produce a watercolor painting, which was promptly auctioned to the highest bidder.
All proceedings are accompanied by loud music and equally loud ‘explanations’ of how much the dolphins are enjoying to entertain YOU!
After the show there are photo ops … for a price of course.
Natural behavior or slavery? Educational or cash cow? I don’t think I have to answer the obvious.