66 million years ago, a 15 kilometer-wide rock out of space dug a 100 kilometer-across and 30 kilometer-deep hole in the Earth’s crust with its center just off what we today call the Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico. The bowl thus created then collapsed, leaving a crater 200 kilometer-across and a few kilometer deep named the Chicxulub Crater. The impact creating this crater was the starting point for the Earth’s fifth mass extinction with, as its best-known victims, the dinosaurs.
Today we live at the starting point of the sixth mass extinction. No rock from outer space was needed this time and the crash is more gradual, at least to our human experience of time, but not by geological standards. It started with a bipedal ape leaving Africa, exterminating megafauna, burning grassland, chopping down forests, flooding rice paddies on its path to world domination. One single, successful species, Man, multiplied and multiplied, reaped from the planet what it needed for it’s own selfish interests and spewed the waste products out over the land, into the oceans and air. For the other species on the planet there was less and less space available and their remaining habitats were acre by acre destroyed by Man’s activities. Where Man did not destroy these species simply because they were in the way of its ‘progress’, he exploited them for food, work, experiments, sport and entertainment.
In this last form of exploitation, the Yucatan peninsula again plays a role, as it is here that the enslavement of one of evolution’s most intelligent, socially complex, culturally rich creatures has become a massive industry. Hundreds of dolphins are imprisoned and degraded along the Riviera Maya to perform simplistic circus tricks for an ignorant human audience to fill the pockets of other humans.
The Riviera Maya is a tourism and resort area straddling coastal highway 307 from Cancun in the North to Tulum in the South, in its entirety located in the Mexican state Quintana Roo on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. It is a stretch of no more than 125 kilometers.
Mexico and its Caribbean neighbors have the highest number of dolphin prisons of Latin America with 40-plus dolphinariums enslaving some 250 to 400 Dolphins. Mexico has one of the biggest of the global captive dolphin industries with over 10% of all dolphins held.
People flock to the Riviera Maya region for sun and beach, good diving, relatively cheap food and booze, the proximity of world-renowned Maya architecture and culture, and natural wonders in the form of waterfalls, jungle and cenotes.
With the tourist flocks came the banana tube rides and jet skis, McDonalds and KFCs, and dolphin parks.
The Riviera Maya dolphin parks mainly offer “Swim With the Dolphins” (SWTD) programs.
SWTD is a general term for a variety of dolphin interactions. Besides actually swimming – very little – with one dolphin or more, you can be:
-Photographed with a dolphin having a “dolphin kiss & hug”
-Be pulled through the water by a dolphin by a “dorsal tow”; that is hanging on by the dolphin’s dorsal fin from either side of the dolphin while being dragged through the water.
-The same but then through the “belly-ride”, in which the ‘swimmer’ holds on to the dolphin’s pectoral fins while the dolphin pulls the ‘swimmer’ along; the dolphin swimming on his or her back
-Give a “dolphin handshake”: holding both dolphin flippers while the dolphin rises vertically from the water.
-Or be pushed by the rostrums of usually two dolphins under your feet through the water (“dolphin foot-push”); in a variation on this theme the ‘swimmer’ lies belly down on a so-called boogie board.
-You can even pay to be a Dolphin Trainer for a day, complete with a whistle and training manual.
Programs are offered with an increasing scale of items included and time spent with the dolphin(s) and, the goal of it all, corresponding escalating price tag.
Dolphinarus, for instance, offers a Dolphin Interactive Program (DIP), which includes shaking the dolphin flipper, receiving a dolphin kiss on the cheek, watching the dolphin swimming through a mask, and a professional photograph with the dolphin. Dolphin Swim & Ride (DSR) is the DIP “plus a thrilling dorsal ride.” The Dolphin Swim Program (DSP) consists of the DIP+DSR programs, but you get to meet and swim with two dolphins instead of one and you get to pick between a two-dolphin dorsal-ride and a two-dolphin foot-push. Trainer for a day offers a behind-the-scenes tour and learning the basics of dolphin training and of course all the ‘fun’ of the other programs: Swim and dive with the dolphins, pet, hug and kiss them, shake their fin and do the “foot-push” or “dorsal-ride”.
At dolphin discovery they offer the same under different names. The 60-minute Dolphin Royal Swim includes the foot push, dorsal tow, kiss, hand target (the dolphin will jump to touch your hands), hug and caresses. The 50-minute Dolphin Swim Adventure has the boogie-push (foot-push while lying on top of a boogie board), belly ride, kiss, hand target, hug and caresses and the 40-minute Dolphin Encounter offers the kiss, hand target, hug and caresses. At their Cozumel facility they even throw sea lions and manatees into the mix.
At Delphinus there is for sale the $89 USD Splash, the $109 USD Dolphin Ride, the $140 USD Advanced and the $159 USD Primax4, all including the same tricks, just more and longer if you are willing to spend more money.
When you stand on the cliffs of Taiji, witnessing yet another dolphin hunt, the cruelty of the drive itself and the slaughter for meat is clear. Some would consider the animals that are spared the steel rod through their spinal cord and are instead selected for a life in captivity, lucky. But as you follow their journey – from the kill beach to the harbor pens, the first days of starvation, then the initial training, months later their first time performing for the harbor cruise boats, then transport, by road or air, to a more permanent facility to do tricks in exchange for nutrient-deficient, defrosted fish, day in, day out, for a crowd of human spectators – you realize that this is just another form of death, a slower one.
Mexico’s captive dolphin history started in 1970 with the display of two dolphins outside a supermarket store to attract costumers. Then the first three facilities displayed dolphins in Mexico City, all as the standard circus show with jumps, balls etc.
The dolphins came from local waters; the Bay of Campeche was a favorite ‘collecting’ location. No law or regulation was established to try to control this activity until 2002, a simple year-long valid catch permit sufficed, and thus there is no way to trace how many dolphins were really captured during this 30 year period and how many died either in the capture process or afterwards in the tanks.
During the 1990s SWTD programs were introduced. Although you can fill a big circus tent or fixed arena with a lot of people, you can charge a lot more to individuals in small groups who get an up close and personal, privileged treatment.
Captive Mexican dolphins may have to do the same repetitive tricks dozens of times a day, most days of their lives. Pectoral and dorsal fins may get grabbed over one hundred times a day. How can this not be causing stress and injury to the dolphins?
A Former trainer in the Bahamas told ‘The Dodo’ in 2015: “They did 10 interactions a day … the same motions, the same speech, the same signals over and over. They would get frustrated … and aggressive to guests or knock food buckets out of our hands.”
The exact numbers of dolphins kept in this area is hard to determine. There is little transparency from the dolphin-circus operators and because almost all operators own several facilities, dolphins are regularly transferred from one place to another. The owners claim to do this to avoid boredom (thus admitting dolphins get bored), but this makes it conveniently difficult to tally the number of dolphins in slavery or track the lives of individuals.
In the twentieth century nearly all dolphins in Mexican facilities were wild-caught in local waters. Two belugas, unavailable in Mexican waters, were already imported from Russia in 1996.
After dolphin captures in Mexican waters were banned in 2002, dolphin imports started to grow. The practice of taking dolphins from the wild and therewith the pressure on dolphin populations was simply transferred to locations outside of Mexico, mainly Cuba. Cuba claims that capturing wild dolphins for export is a sustainable practice yet can’t provide studies or other evidence that establishes the number of dolphins in Cuban waters.
This shift from home catches to dolphin imports also helped to finance the slaughters in Japan and the Solomon Islands. In 2003, 28 wild-caught dolphins were imported from The Solomon Islands to Mexico in one shipment. At least nine of them were dead, five years later.
Dolphins were also imported from Japan’s infamous Taiji drive hunt, a total of eleven animals in two shipments; four in the year 2000 and seven dolphins in 2005. Seven of these are still alive at Cabo Dolphin.
The high mortality rate of captured dolphins and the negative publicity surrounding the imports, inspired Mexico to ban the import of dolphins (and their body parts) in January 2006 and as it currently stands it is illegal to capture dolphins in Mexican waters unless you have a scientific permit.
In 2008, only 10% of the dolphins held in Mexico were captive born, 50% were captured in Mexican waters and 27% in Cuba. The Solomon and Taiji dolphins made up the remainder.
The rise in imports immediately after the Mexican capture ban, exposed the fact that no matter how much captive breeding successes are exploited for propaganda purposes, the captive industry still depended on live captures or found live captures just more convenient. The Delphinus’ website loudly proclaims that “[w]ith the birth of the first surviving tonina Tursiops Truncatus bottle-nosed dolphin calf in Mexico in September 1992, the Delphinus Dolphin Breeding Program was created.”. This obscures the fact that before the year 2000 only two captive born dolphins were successfully bred, as life captures were the norm and dying dolphins were easily replaced. Only when dolphin imports into Mexico were banned in 2006, the Mexican facilities had to scramble to keep up their numbers.
Delphinus, formerly El Grupo Via Delphi, has six dolphin parks along the Riviera Maya. Its headquarters are at the municipality of Riviera Maya, next to the Occidental Grand Xcaret Hotel. It is at the same time the base of Delphinus’ “Animal Welfare Program for Research on Marine Mammals”, the home office of their veterinarians and biologists.
Delphinus’ main dolphin breeding facility is located in the so-called, ecological park of Xcaret. They claim to have a 250-m2 “private and exclusive” maternity area for the dolphins.
Their other facilities are at another so-called ecological park Xel-há, in Hotel El Cid’s marina in Puerto Morelos, on the premises of Cancun’s Hyatt-Ziva hotel and at the Cancun Aquarium.
The Dolphinarus organization became well known when despite numerous protests it opened a dolphin captive facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, on October 15, 2016.
It has five facilities on the Riviera Maya.
Dolphinaris Cancun is located next to Ventura Park Cancun and the Wet ‘n’ Wild Water Park. This is the original concentration camp for the Solomon Island dolphins. Dolphinaris Cozumel is located on the island of the same name. There are two Dolphinaris facilities at Riviera Maya municipality: Dolphinaris Riviera Maya Park and one inside the Barceló Maya Beach Resort. Another Dolphinaris park is located inside the Bahia Principe Tulum Hotel.
The Dolphin Discovery Group, founded in 1994, by “a group of visionaries guided by the great love of dolphins and other marine mammals […] [c]reating bonds of love and respect”, consider themselves “the #1 dolphin company in the world!” with over twenty dolphin-prisons in 9 countries and more than 6 million visitors since their opening.
Their facility on Isla Mujeres, recently renovated, allegedly damaging the fragile mangrove forest in the process, lies on the island of the same name.
Dolphin Discovery Costa Maya is located near the village of Mahahual. Dolphin Discovery Tulum Akumal opened in 2014, and claims to be the only one with all dolphins born under human care, although Dreams Puerto Aventuras & Spa, housing a Dolphin Discovery facility, asserts the same. In Punta Maroma, Dolphin Discovery’s Playa del Carmen facility opened in 2013. Cozumel Dolphin Discovery is located on Cozumel Island. In 2012, Dolphin Riviera Cancun opened inside Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort in Cancun.
Dolphin Discovery owns many more dolphin-prisons beyond the Riviera Maya, both in Mexico (Los Cabos, prison of the Taiji dolphins, Nuevo Vallarta Nayarit, now called Aquaventuras Park and Six Flags Mexico City), in the USA (Sea Life Park, Hawaii from 2005 to 2008 and Gulf World Park, Panama City, Florida, since 2014), the Caribbean (on Tortola one of the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Grand Cayman, Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic and on St. Skitts) and Europe (Zoomarine Park, Rome, Italy since 2015).
In November 2015, Dolphin Discovery Group acquired Dolphin Cove Jamaica, Ltd. With four dolphin parks: Dolphin Montego Bay, Dolphin Cove Ocho Rios, Half Moon Dolphin Lagoon and Moon Palace Jamaica Grande.
Remember that these facilities are designed and built by humans for the comfort and enjoyment of humans and not for the needs of the dolphins. All the dolphin tricks, whether you call them behaviors or circus acts, whether you consider them positively reinforced, operant conditioned or starved out of the animals, are designed and performed for human entertainment not the dolphins’ wellbeing. The profits are raked in by the ‘owners’ of the dolphins and the facilities, and by their henchmen: the holiday booking agencies, the region’s hotels and the cruise line operators. The costs in suffering and death are paid in full by the dolphins.
Delphinus boasts on their website that they own some of the biggest dolphinariums in Mexico, yet they fail to mention they also own one of the smallest, located in a shopping center.
Aquarium Cancun, in the La Isla Shopping Center on Blvd. Kukulcan, km. 12.5, is besides a so-called interactive aquarium with over 140 species in fish tanks and pools, one of the few facilities that offers, besides SWTD programs, also a daily show at 6:30pm.
This is the facility I decided to visit in this area as the relatively low entrance fee for the aquarium, US$14, allowed me to watch the proceedings of the SWTD program for a full day without contributing too much in money to the practice.
The first thing I noticed when I reached the dolphin pool, after having passed by the indoor glass-walled aquarium exhibits and the outdoor ray petting pool, is that shade is for people not dolphins. The elevated walkways surrounding the dolphin pool have canvas coverings while the dolphins that in the wild would spend considerable time under water are exposed the entire day to the sun.
The concrete tank is barren as in all these places with nothing to occupy the cetacean mind. I think their living area can best be compared to the mind-numbing, sterile padded cells in asylums for the insane.
When I arrived early in the day the dolphins were circling listlessly as they do in all these facilities between shows or interactions with the paying visitors. Only here they were listless with floats, pushing brightly-colored buoys around with their rostrum or dragging floating pads with their dorsal fins. Delphinus advertises this as ‘enrichment’, but for an activity to be ‘enriching’ it has to challenge the animals mind. For apes, monkeys or big cats true enrichment often consists of sophisticated ways to get at or unpack treats. With circus dolphins however this poses the problem that well-fed dolphins might be unwilling to perform the tricks that make them such valuable cash cows. Food and treats are the coercion into obedience.
That is why the captive dolphin industry came up with the non-nutritional treat of jelly. At the Cancun Aquarium the impression is created that dolphins are fed throughout the day, but if you take a closer look at the content of the cooler boxes outside of the SWTD programs, you’ll see that they contain cubes of jelly. Gelatin consists mainly of water. Cetaceans don’t normally drink, not the salty seawater in the wild and not the chlorinated surrogate in captivity. Instead they get necessary liquids from the prey items they catch. In captivity, however, the frozen then thawed dead fish have lost most of their liquid, hence the necessity of supplementing it. The dolphins have been trained to readily accept jelly and it is a convenient tool to hide supplements or medicine in without alleviating the hunger that forces the dolphins to perform tricks in exchange for food.
The food drive is obvious: In between shows, when a trainer shows up next to the pool, the dolphins briefly awake from their stupor to beg for food.
Besides the lack of shade and barrenness of the pool, what immediately strikes you is how small it is for the six large bottlenose dolphins imprisoned in it, and that besides one small, tiled concrete cell there is no way to separate the dolphins. The only other small pool is occupied by one small, very lonely sea lion.
At the end of the day when the public was thinning and the floats were removed, the dolphins started mobbing one another; beaks wide open, going at each other.
It might be seen as play, but the dolphins here display an amount of rakes (parallel lines of tooth marks on the skin) and open gashes that I’ve not seen at other places.
In the wild or even in large tanks individual dolphins can get way, flee, if the going gets to rough for them. That option does not exist at the Cancun Aquarium. The owners must have realized how obvious the wounds are and have tried to explain them away as ‘natural’ on signs strategically placed along the walkways.
Other very obvious wounds are the lesions that at least two of the dolphins had on the tip of the beak, possibly caused by performing the foot push over and over again.
Throughout the day, the staff was applying lotions, possibly disinfectants, to the multitude of wounds on the dolphins.
The mentioned signboards make up the education part of the experience, I guess, although they mostly applaud Delphinus for their great dolphin care and captive breeding successes.
As I observed the public throughout the day, I did not see a single person actually stop in front of a sign and read it; I was the only one. People don’t visit these places to be educated; people open to education are unlikely to still support captivity. The people that visit are there to be entertained, to tick an ‘experience’ of their bucket list.
Although they do an evening show, the Cancun aquarium’s bread and butter is SWTD programs. Hourly, when there is a demand, three groups get in the water to do their thing with the dolphins
I asked the manager of my Playa del Carmen hotel how they benefitted from selling tours like SWTD programs. He told me they didn’t get a commission; instead they are offered free tickets that they could either divide under their personnel or sell for profit.
Cruise liners carrying thousands of tourists sail into different Caribbean ports every day where dolphinariums are planned and placed strategically to cater to these guests as they disembark the ship. All the big cruise liners relentlessly promote swimming with captive dolphins as a “once in a lifetime experience”. As long as we cannot eliminate this demand, more dolphin prisons will open up in the Caribbean, the world’s most popular cruise destination.
The cruise lines, travel agencies and hotels share a responsibility for dolphin enslavement, the capture and slaughter of dolphins in Taiji and the Solomon Islands and for the dolphin kidnaps in Cuba, Honduras and Russia – as the promoters and profiteers of the practice – with the enslavers in the Caribbean and with the men with their pointed rods on that Taiji pebble beach.
There is opposition in the region it self. Organizations like Delfines en Libertad in Mexico, Jamaica Environment Trust, reEarth in the Bahamas and others raise awareness on the issue locally.
On October 21 and 22, 2016 a two-day ‘International Conference on the Captive Dolphin Industry in Mexico and the Caribbean’ was held in Playa del Carmen. Attending the conference were world experts on marine mammals and anti-captivity activists (and some people from the captive industry) to discuss and debate the welfare and environmental impacts of dolphin capture, breeding, and captivity.
Until all the tanks are empty!